Afghanistan not ready to legalize opium production

A Paris group says there's demand for medicine made from poppies. But Afghan officials say they can't police the trade.

As the international community searches high and low to find alternative livelihoods for poppy farmers, one answer may be growing right under their noses.

According to a nonpartisan think tank based in Paris, there is a worldwide shortage of morphine and codeine, two medicines produced from poppies. Emmanuel Reinert, the executive director of the Senlis Council, estimates the global need to be 10,000 metric tons of opium based on per capita differences in consumption between Europe and poorer regions of the world.

Afghanistan currently produces 4,000 metric tons of opium illegally.

Mr. Reinert says that many people forgo the medicines because they are priced too high, and Afghan production could help drive down prices.

Currently, India and Turkey are the major producers of licit opium for medicines. Suppliers are licensed and closely monitored by an international control board that requires strict monitoring of the crop to ensure it does not end up as a narcotic.

US and Afghan officials express doubt that Afghanistan can achieve a high enough level of security to make this idea practical. "For the time being, we don't have the monitoring capacity," says Mirwaiz Yasini, Afghanistan's deputy minister for counternarcotics.

Legalizing some cultivation could also undermine use of moral suasion to deter growing, says Bobby Charles, former US assistant secretary state for international narcotics law enforcement. "Anything that went about legalizing an opiate in that market would send exactly the wrong message. It would suggest that there is something legitimate to growing."

Paul Fishstein, an analyst with the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent think tank in Kabul, says that outside political pressure on Afghanistan to eradicate the crop makes this idea a "nonstarter." At best, he says, it is a "long-term prospect" that requires the difficult work of strengthening Afghan institutions first.

The Senlis Council plans to hold an international conference in September where preliminary findings from its study will be released.

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