August 15th, 2009

[Update September 29th: I retract here some of the language used below.]

I was planning a post on palliative care: drawing on a few actual arguments and facts and my personal experience of watching my wife die. Plainly this exercise has no point at all just now; any more than a reasoned analysis of the economic position of the Jewish bourgeoisie would have had in 1933 Germany. You can’t fight lies with nuance.

So instead I’ll glumly mount my tired Rosinante again on the subject of Afghan opium. Mark is right that it’s progress of a sort that the USA and UK plan to give money to Afghan farmers to grow nothing or apples instead. But it’s still second-best.

If the cash is handed over for growing nothing, the scheme is humiliating, short-term, and basically a boondoggle like the European Union‘s farm “set-asides”. Even by the low standards of the Common Agricultural Policy, these are so smelly that they are being phased out. (The new scheme is simply to give needy farmers including the Duke of Westminster large sacks of money in return for just existing; even Louis XIV or Prince Metternich didn’t try that one.) If the money is handed over for growing something else, it will be an uphill struggle against comparative advantage. If apple trees grew well, wouldn’t they be there already?

Either way, the plan will be wide open to abuse — including growing opium anyway. It might work if Afghan farmers were either much less intelligent or much more public-spirited than European or American ones. It’s a safe bet that the truth is the reverse. The extreme selective pressures operating in the Afghan countryside since the Soviet invasion of 1978 guarantee that the surviving Afghan peasants are bound to be both cleverer and even less scrupulous than the Duke of Westminster and his American farm-baron cousins.

The first-choice plan is still to buy the opium crop for medical use as morphine in poor countries that hardly use any of the stuff today, except for their élites.


§ UK and American taxpayers would be buying, instead of nothing, a valuable supply of the world’s great painkiller of last resort.

§ People with terminal cancer or AIDS in Africa would get, instead of agony, the chance of dying in peace and dignity.

§ The Afghan peasants would get the same money — but in a scheme that they would know to be useful, moral and sustainable.

§ The Taliban would gnash their teeth.


§ Requires an expansive reading of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Nothing in the Convention appears to prevent the USA and UK from doubling their national estimates of annual opiate needs under Article 19 from 120 tons or so to 240 tons, earmarking the increase for a Third World outreach programme. The problem at first sight is Article 24 which requires the approval of an international board for the corresponding increase in legal Afghan exports. Still, there’s a war on; the USA could surely get its way in Vienna by threatening to denounce the Convention.

§ Requires a long-term commitment, in funds and organization, to a huge expansion of safe medical morphine delivery in the Third World. To anybody with a heart, this is a plus. The issue of different timescales can be resolved by temporary stockpiles.

§ Faces severe difficulties in setting up a tolerably secure legal production chain in Afghanistan. But these are less than those of the half-baked set-aside scheme actually being planned. Zero leakage is not atttainable in either, but isn’t required.

So what’s the snag? Why has this pretty obvious idea been not only rejected (fair enough, you can’t win them all) but simply cut out of the discussion? Don’t the US and its allies face a desperate crisis in Afghanistan when anything plausible should be considered?

Ignoring one amateur blogger is one thing: Mark is an expert here, I am not. But there’s a well-connected Europe-based NGO, ICOS, that‘s been lobbying for the same plan since 2005 under the label “Poppies for Medicine”. In their very detailed proposal, they point out that illegal opium growing in Turkey was wiped out after 1970 through a US-supported legalisation strategy!

With blue-ribbon names on the board, including a former head of Interpol, why has ICOS failed to make headway with a winning idea?

It must be the pathological tunnel vision of the drug warriors. Opium is BAD! (No it isn’t; like most things, from sex, food, and alcohol to government, literacy and religion, it’s a curate’s egg — good and bad in parts.) But feeble tactics have made the losing struggle even more certain.

§ ICOS changed its name from the quirky, Dan Brown-ish Senlis Council to the forgettably Identikit International Council on Security and Development. This move reminds me of the short-lived plan by the public postal service of the country that more or less invented the idea, Britain’s Royal Mail, to rebrand itself as Consignia.

§ The poppy report is unauthored, reducing its credibility by half.

§ ICOS has wasted energy on getting the support of the European Parliament, which in this field is powerless, and has no American on its board.

§ Most important, ICOS has not learnt the ABC of running a pressure-group campaign: unless a lobby can offer huge bribes (“campaign contributions”), it has to develop a grassroots operation like candidate Barack Obama or Greenpeace. “Poppies for Medicine“ is a feeble title: “Poppies for Pain” would be an instant improvement.

Two more pieces of unsolicited advice to Emmanuel Reinert, ICOS’ boss:

§ Stop attacking the UN drugs control conventions. It takes decades to change these things. Think about working round the system, as I have begun to do above.

§ Start a single-issue charity to provide morphine to Third World hospitals and hospices. Raise a pile of money even if you can’t spend it yet. Find a sympathetic rich country (The Netherlands? Norway?) that will help you build a stockpile. If the UN bureaucracy make it impossible for you to get the morphine to Uganda, raise a public fuss with videos of dying Uganda children. Eventually the drugs establishment will have to give in.

Oh, a title for the charity: Angels on Horseback. You groan at the pun — but may remember it tomorrow, unlike ICOS. And as a reward for your readerly patience in coming this far with me, here’s a completely irrelevant but classy picture of the original incident by Raphael in the Stanza of Heliodorus in the Vatican. The advanced Biblical Trivial Pursuit reference is to 2 Maccabees 3:25.


Share this post:
  • Twitter
  • StumbleUpon
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook

Comments are closed.