March 29th, 2009

Great minds are struggling with the problem of Afghan agriculture (viz: the peasants choose to grow opium).

The White Paper of the Interagency Policy Group’s Report on U.S. Policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan:

A dramatic increase in Afghan civilian expertise is needed to … create economic alternatives to the insurgency at all levels of Afghan society, particularly in agriculture. …

Crop substitution and alternative livelihood programs that are a key pillar of effectively countering narcotics have been disastrously underdeveloped and under-resourced, however, and the narcotics trade will persist until such programs allow Afghans to reclaim their land for licit agriculture. Targeting those who grow the poppy will continue, but the focus will shift to higher level drug lords.

And from a BBC report on a recent meeting in Brussels:

Richard Holbrooke said the $800m (£550m) a year the US was spending on counter-narcotics would be better used in supporting Afghan farmers.

The brain-racking has not led to any actual proposals that might, you know, work. Why are they ignoring the obvious?

Milton Friedman’s recommended policy for dealing with the poor was to give them some money. (The actual phrase may be apocryphal but he certainly made the argument.) The parallel policy in Afghanistan is:

Buy the opium.

Consider the facts.

1. Papaver somniferum is an undemanding plant and grows well in the semi-arid high plains of Afghanistan. Nothing else much does, so attempts to persuade Afghan peasants to grow wheat and potatoes or something have failed. They have a comparative advantage in growing opium. In spite of the horrendous difficulties, they are remarkably good at it, as shown by the dramatic fall in the retail price of heroin since 1990 (World Drugs Report 2008 (WDR), charts p.49).

2. The world has a shortage of opium, not a glut. The (fluctuating) total annual supply of illicit heroin is estimated at about 400 tons (WDR, p.52). The actual demand for licit medical morphine in 2008 was 283 tons – but it should have been far higher. The amount of human suffering implied by the morphine gap is staggering. In the USA, 559,312 people died from cancer in 2005, in the UK, 154,162 in 2006: roughly a quarter of all deaths. Most of these men and women had their passing eased by morphine; and so will you and those you love if you come to need it. Not so in much of the world. According to India’s leading expert on palliative care, M.R. Rajagopal, only 1% of Indians who need it have access to morphine. The majority of the 7.6 million who die every year in the world from cancer alone suffer great and avoidable pain: a shame to us all.

Here is my simulation of the medical morphine market as it ought to be, reproduced from a post of last September:


4. The current Afghan poppy harvest of about 8,000 tons (WDR p. 38) – potentially 800 tons of pure opiate – could be absorbed several times over in the needed expansion of morphine supply.

It would of course be difficult to set up a well-policed licit opium supply chain in Afghanistan, and to upgrade and fund the medical distribution chain for morphine in say Africa. But no other strategy is any easier or cheaper; and this one offers Afghan peasants a real way out to an honourable livelihood, which crop-burning does not. So: Give them some money. If courage is lacking for a policy switch, at least experiment by giving $10m for a pilot to some maverick counter-insurgency colonel of the McMaster or Kilcullen stamp.

I’m left wondering why so many bright people have a blind spot here. Many of us have been indoctrinated to think that because heroin is an evil, so is opium. This is quite wrong. The world would be a far worse place without the blessed opium poppy than it manages to be with it.

Compare. The death rate from heroin in the USA was about 5,000 in 1999 – estimated by drug warriors, so biased if anything upwards. The USA has about 7% of the world’s opiate addicts (1.2m out of 16.5m, WDR p. 55), so scaling up we would have an order-of-magnitude estimate of 69,000 deaths a year worldwide : many in some sense voluntary. Set this against millions of people spared agonizing pain and allowed a peaceful and dignified dying. I rest my case.

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