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Afghanistan’s Painkiller

Prepared by: Toni Johnson
November 5, 2007

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A UN report (PDF) on drug enforcement shows Afghan opium production increased in 2006 by nearly 60 percent from the previous year. During the same time period, eradication of poppy fields increased 210 percent but still amounted to a mere 37,000 acres, affecting less than 10 percent of poppy production in 2006. Despite efforts by the United States and Britain to slow opium production through eradication and crop replacement schemes, opium from Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent (Telegraph) of the world's heroin.

A U.S. plan to step up use of an herbicide for poppy eradication is causing controversy. The Afghan government has concerns about the possible health impacts and is now studying (NYT) the problem. Opponents in Afghanistan fear mass eradication of the country's cash crop could alienate Afghan farmers and create a backlash (McClatchy) against Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who's already politically weak, according to EU and U.S. officials. Chemical fumigants are used extensively in South America to combat illegal drugs, often at the behest of Washington. But they have been criticized by political activists and environmental advocates for causing illness and killing legal crops. Opposition to such eradication policies helped Bolivian President Evo Morales rise to power (World Politics Review) with his pro-coca farmer stance and recently pitted U.S. ally Colombia against Ecuador's leftist regime. The Paris-based Senlis Council, an international think tank, argues that "extreme poverty and a lack of sustainable alternatives" in Afghanistan makes eradication an "ineffective as a counter-narcotics policy tool" and should be replaced (PDF) with a policy that licenses Afghan opium for "essential opium based medicine such as morphine."

In 2005, Vanda Felbab-Brown, a fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, lauded Senlis' proposal as way to reduce the country's "illegal economy" but noted that even with licensing, it would be difficult to keep farmers from selling to drug dealers for a higher price. Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy, a research fellow for France's Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, disagrees with the proposal. He argues that to deal with opium, it is "poverty and the shortcomings of the Afghan agrarian system that should be tackled." The U.S. State Department also rejects the idea, contending the $16 to $50 per kilogram paid for opium in the legal market "is not lucrative enough to entice Afghan farmers" given illegal opium went for as much as $125 per kilo in 2006.

The State Department also says that there is no legitimate world demand for legal opium from Afghanistan. Morphine is neither scarce nor expensive even by developing world standards, but is underused by many doctors (PDF) because addiction is feared, say activists who have lobbied for greater user of the drug in palliative care. They see a need for morphine to be made more widely available, for example as a painkiller for cancer (IHT) sufferers in the developing world.

As of 2004, six countries in the world consume (PDF) nearly 79 percent of the world's morphine, while only about 6 percent of morphine was consumed in countries totaling 80 percent of the world's population, says the UN's International Narcotics Control Board. In some countries, none at all is imported. Jagjit Pavadia, national narcotics commissioner in India—one of 12 countries in the world licensed to produce opium—says (NYT) India would "make more morphine if only doctors would request it."

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