Tuesday 9 June 2009

Growing opium poppies - but not in Afghanistan

My picture, taken today, shows large fields of opium poppies (papaver somniferum), which are the principal crop of southern Afghanistan and the source of 90 per cent of the world’s heroin. But this picture was not taken in Helmand, the main opium-growing region. It was not even taken in Afghanistan. What about Turkey or Burma? No. Give up?

The astonishing truth is that this picture was taken in Oxfordshire in the south of England. Faced with a growing shortage of morphine and codeine for medicine, the UK’s Home Office has granted the pharmaceutical company Macfarlan Smith, a world leader in the production of alkaloid opiates, a licence to harvest poppies in Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire. Hundreds of acres are now under cultivation. The company then processes the poppies into pain-killing drugs for use by doctors all over the country.

Nor is Britain the only country that is experiencing a massive shortage of poppy-derived morphine. There are shortages in many parts of the world.

Why then are we destroying opium fields in Afghanistan? A good question, particularly as this week it is being reported that there is a growing recognition that Afghanistan’s counter-narcotic strategy is failing. Two weeks ago the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen told the US Senate that the international community was losing the battle against opium production in Afghanistan. Mullen said foreign forces in Afghanistan need to do more than simply fight Taliban militants who are paid by criminal groups to protect opium crops.

And last week it was announced that UN officials in Afghanistan are attempting to create a 'flood of drugs' in the country intended to destroy the value of opium and force poppy farmers to switch to legal crops such as wheat.

After the failure to destroy poppies in Afghanistan's volatile south, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says the answer is to stop the drugs from leaving the country in the first place. The have realised that manual eradication is inefficient and instead propose flooding the country with cheap opium. Last year the Afghan government succeeded in destroying only 3.5% of Afghanistan's 157,000 hectares of poppy because eradication teams were either attacked or bought off by local drug lords.

The ‘flooding’ option has clearly not been thought through and will probably result in thousands more opium/heroin addicts in Afghanistan.

What about encouraging poppy production in order to satisfy the world market for morphine? The Senlis Council proposed this strategy some time ago in its report Poppy for Medicine. Despite receiving backing from the European Parliament, nothing much more has happened. Perhaps it is an idea whose time has now come?


Anonymous said...

Why do we not adopt the obvious policy of paying Afghan farmers a decent wage to produce this crop for us, and thereby allow their society to develop economically?

This policy was once proposed by Tobias Ellwood, conservative MP, and former Royal Green Jackets Officer, who argued the case cogently (http://www.opioids.com/afghanistan/opium-legalization.html). No believable counter-argument was ever put forward by the UK government (and I would not expect the US government to even try...). The best the UK government could come up with is that buying the crop would not reduce the price of opium on the black market. So nobody in the UK government understands micro-economics?

I suspect that the real reason that they will not countenance this obvious and humanitarian solution is that it would be too damaging the the heavily protected western pharmaceutical and arms industries, both of whom benefit from violently stamping out competition.

Unknown said...

Long time...Nick,

Thought I'd find you out on the innertubes...



Drop me a note. Paul

OscarIndia said...

The politics of drugs is interesting - even the use of the word moves the debate into a specific place, somewhere detached from a rational analysis of the issues.
It would take a brave politician to try to move that debate, as policy failure in this area equals total political death.