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Bhattacharji: Tackling Afghanistan’s Opium Trade with Legalization

Interviewee: Romesh Bhattacharji, South Asian counternarcotics expert
Interviewer: Toni Johnson
December 20, 2007

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India is one of only a dozen countries allowed to grow opium poppies to export for the manufacture of legal drugs such as morphine. Romesh Bhattacharji, former narcotics commissioner for India, says he thinks India’s system of legalized opium growing can work in Afghanistan. Bhattacharji says India’s success with poppy growing (PDF) though an international licensing program for medicine production is largely due to a village control system, where if one farmer sells their crop illegally the entire area loses its license. He urges the adoption of this method in Afghanistan, where he says eradication efforts are ineffective and swaying support for the Taliban.

Can you describe how a country becomes licensed to grow poppies and what India's history with the program has been? What might it mean for dealing with poppy growing in Afghanistan?

There is the international narcotics law, which controls opium production by a few countries authorized to do so under the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961. Every country producing opium and opiates has to submit a detailed quarterly summary of its usage. For domestic consumption there is no restriction except the International Narcotics Control Board [INCB] which has to be informed about production by the country’s notified agency that oversees this cultivation. India started cultivating opium 454 years ago under Emperor [Jalaluddin Muhammad] Akbar’s reign. He taxed production. In those days, troops used to be given a daily dosage of opium, which was used for many medicinal purposes. Then, from the late eighteenth century, the British started profiting off of opium cultivation in India by smuggling it into China. The present organization with everything relating to opium production is being managed by [India’s] Central Bureau of Narcotics [CBN], established in 1948.

The CBN issues licenses in October to every farmer that is capable of cultivation. In the case of any illegal activity, the entire village loses its license. With the entire community being affected by one bad penny, the community will discourage farmers from illegal diversion. I believe the strong village control system in Afghanistan will ensure that the license continues to be with the village. In Afghanistan, the conversion from opium to morphine would be undertaken in a cluster of villages themselves and all profits would accrue to all the villages. That’s the argument [made by the Senlis Council, an international think tank that focuses on Afghanistan].

One Indian official said that they would rather have India grow more opium than see Afghanistan enter the market. They basically said that they wanted Indian farmers to benefit. How does this play out in the policy realm?

India’s fear is that if this opium in Afghanistan is legitimized, it will edge India out. That is not possible. India is now going into manufacturing codeine and [merperidine] too. It is relaxing its laws and controlling morphine usage, and thus the local demand for Indian opium is likely to increase. And the U.S. can be depended on to buy most of its produce under the 80/20 Rule.

What is the 80/20 Rule?

In the 1960s, the U.S. had undertaken to buy 80 percent of all its opium supplies from Turkey and India. That’s it. You know there are these companies that depend on opium from India and Turkey, so they have to buy from them according to this undertaking. More importantly, the recognition of the huge unmet demand for morphine, which has been mentioned (PDF) by the [World Health Organization] but has been ignored by the UN and [Washington], will ultimately benefit India and other opium growers too.

India is already reeling under the downstream abuse of Afghan heroin, smuggled through its land border with Pakistan. Addiction is growing in border villages alarmingly. This increasing addiction and trafficking is a more serious problem for India than losing its market, because that’s an idle fear, according to me. Also we have to realize that the Senlis proposal for Afghanistan [to legally grow poppies for medicine (PDF)] is a strategic security decision. It will help stabilize southern Afghanistan and therefore will stabilize the entire region. Afghanistan’s future is being determined in terms of security, and the potential return of extremists primarily using money acquired by illicit production of opium.

How does the policy for eradication and interdiction that the U.S., British, and international community have against Afghan opium compare to what the Senlis Council is asking?

Every year, about $ 1 billion is being spent to control opium cultivation and narcotics trafficking in Afghanistan. Last year the cultivation increased by 60 percent, and [in 2007] 22 percent. As for success in enforcement, it is lamentable and pathetic. Iran, which gets much of its opium and heroin from Afghanistan, spends just about $30 million and seizes opium and heroin almost [five to eight times] more than Afghanistan does. Favoritism, corruption, and the U.S.-sponsored system of having opium crops destroyed by DynCorp, a U.S. contractor, as expected have failed miserably. Contractors are only interested in making as much money as possible for as little work as possible. The Senlis system is the only real hope that can be seen in the blighted narcotic skies over Afghanistan. It offers good money to the individual cultivator and also holds a promise for microfinance for others in the community as well as a possibility of funding development schemes in the concerned village.

In comparison with current eradication efforts that call for aerial spraying, opium licensing in Afghanistan is a win-win solution. While it is impossible to stop all the erosion into the illegal market, it would see a vast improvement from the current 100 percent [of the crop] going into the illegal market. Not only has the current poppy eradication in Afghanistan been ineffective, it has robbed a few farmers of their sole source of income. The Taliban has used eradication efforts to their advantage, offering protection to farmers and gaining popularity.

Despite the UN, the U.S., and their supporters saying the demand for morphine has reached a saturation point in the world, there is a huge unmet demand of about two thousand tons. That is deliberately not recognized. If it was not so, why has Britain, since last year, started to cultivate its own opium? [Britain began cultivating poppies on British soil to combat a diamorphine shortage (DailyMail).]

There is only one problem that I can see, which is that this scheme will not cover all those concerned in cultivating opium illicitly. About six thousand tons of opium is produced illicitly in Afghanistan. According to this [Senlis] project, they will produce two thousand tons at most. What happens to the other farmers? They will have to be subdued by the same corrupt and inefficient narcotic agencies that are the eye and arm of the present government.

Why are people so against licensing opium production in Afghanistan, other than the U.S. stance that there is not enough morphine demand? What’s the block here?

The money being made out of enforcement. Last year they spent $700 million on enforcement and the results were nothing. It's a very easy way of funding a contractual system. That’s my way of looking at it. Apart from that, [some think] that enforcement is all, that it’s the only way to answer the illicit cultivation; whereas, it hasn’t succeeded anywhere. There was the thought that in Burma, [drug trafficking] was under control, but this year a report (PDF) says that there has been a tremendous increase in Burma also. You know, this mind-set has to be changed because here, year after year we are seeing dismal failure in eradication and enforcement of narcotic trafficking, yet nothing is happening. They don’t want to see anything new, test out new ideas.

You mentioned earlier that India was facing a heroin problem, and the heroin problem was coming from Afghanistan. What have the efforts been to stop illegal heroin trafficking over the border, and how do you see this proposal fitting in with that?

If it is legalized, the heroin that is trickling across the border will lessen. India, they’ve got [defense] at the border, but yet it is coming through. The most encouraging sign is that this year, till now, more than one thousand kilos have been seized at the border and all this is Afghan opium. Last year, the seizures for the same nine months were just about two hundred kilos. So it is actually a sign that the enforcement agencies are active, or that such a lot of it is coming through, that some amount is being seized.

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