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Push to legalize Afghanistan's opium trade

June 25, 2007 By Katharine Sanderson This article courtesy of Nature News.

Group calls for end of poppy eradication strategy.

Encouraging Afghan villagers to make morphine legally from poppies could help stem the illegal opium trade and free farmers from the clutches of the Taliban, suggests a report released today1.

Afghanistan produces more than 90% of the world's illegal opium. Current control methods involve literally ripping up poppy fields, mainly under the oversight of the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. But the Senlis Council, an international policy think-tank with a base in London, has another suggestion: allow the farmers to grow their poppies and process them locally to make morphine tablets under a controlled licensing scheme.

"It's a maverick solution," says Emmanuel Reinert, executive director of the Senlis Council. But it's worth trying, he says, because "the situation cannot be worse than now". Eradication policies have, to date, had no discernible effect on the opium trade, which has grown since 1988 from 200 tonnes per year to 6,100 tonnes per year in 2006.

Failed attempts

"Eradication has been a failure," says Romesh Bhattacharji, former narcotics commissioner for India. "Licensing is the only alternative." Bhattacharji was involved in a similar government-run project in India, which he says has been a success and from which Afghanistan can learn important lessons.

Crop eradication sees the poorest of the population become either even more impoverished or sent into the arms of the Taliban, says Bhattacharji. The Taliban often attack the eradication operations, and end up looking like "white knights" to the farmers, Reinert says.

The Senlis Council has developed a plan for a pilot project in three areas of the country, and is hoping that their report will spur the international community and the Afghan government to action. If they gain local permission, they would aim to begin the pilot project by October for the beginning of the next growing season, they say.

There is already an international licensing scheme for legal poppy growing, they note — but the programme isn't used in Afghanistan because of the overriding eradication policy.

Local labs

The painkillers morphine and codeine are fairly easy to make from opium, and have been produced since the nineteenth century. There is a global shortage of morphine as a painkiller, especially in the developing world.

The Poppy for Medicine pilot programme would involve setting up mobile laboratories to make morphine tablets locally, in order to help prevent theft of the raw ingredients during transport and to keep an eye on quality control. "It will cost a fair amount of money to have labs set up in villages, but it's nothing in comparison to the money spent on eradication," says Reinert.

"It's not the most complicated process," says Norine MacDonald, a lawyer and the Senlis Council's founder. Keeping the processing local will also provide extra jobs, she adds.

As for ensuring that the poppies go towards legal trade alone, Reinert notes that Afghanistan has a very strict social law at the local, village-based level. This, he says, could be enough to make the scheme work and prevent the poppy-growers from turning to the Taliban in desperation.


  1. Poppy for Medicine in Afghanistan: A Village-based Counter-narcotics and Counter-insurgency Model, Senlis Council, London. (2007).


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