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Sunday, August 26, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via the NYT: Taliban Raise Poppy Production to a Record Again

Afghanistan produced record levels of opium in 2007 for the second straight year, led by a staggering 45 percent increase in the Taliban stronghold of Helmand Province, according to a new United Nations survey to be released Monday.

[…]

Anyone who thinks that the Taliban oppose poppy cultivation and opium sales because of their religious fundamentalism are quite incorrect. It is true that during their reign in Afghanistan that opium production was severely cut , but they continued to tax the trade (and the cut in question was for only one year). Indeed, if one looks at the numbers, the policy on production to have been nothing more than an attempt to control price, not to eliminate the product (see here).

Back to the story:

The report is likely to touch off renewed debate about the United States’ $600 million counternarcotics program in Afghanistan, which has been hampered by security challenges and endemic corruption within the Afghan government.

That and the fact that crop elimination programs don’t really work, even thought we are always keen on pretending like they would, if only we had a tad more money.

Former Ambassador to Colombia, now in that job in Afghanistan, starts out well in the next paragraph, and then goes off the deep end:

“I think it is safe to say that we should be looking for a new strategy,” said William B. Wood, the American ambassador to Afghanistan, commenting on the report’s overall findings. “And I think that we are finding one.”

He’s right, we need a strategy, but I am highly dubious that we have found a new one.

Indeed, the entire enterprise continues to be one of rose-colored glasses. The piece noted that officials see “positive” signs in recent trends, yet the story also notes that last year Afghanistan sets a record for opium poppy production and that it amounted to 92% of the world’s supply. The state of denial over what constitutes “positive” outcomes and policy “success” continues to stagger.

And here is the heart of the problem:

Poppy prices that are 10 times higher than those for wheat have so warped the local economy that some farmhands refused to take jobs harvesting legal crops this year, local farmers said. And farmers dismiss the threat of eradication, arguing that so many local officials are involved in the poppy trade that a significant clearing of crops will never be done.

Let me submit: this isn’t a case of the poppy prices having “warped” the economy, the poppy prices simply reflect the prevailing economy. There is a higher demand for opium poppies than there is for wheat, and therefore the price goes up and wages for harvesting a product that pays a better price makes all the economic sense in the world. If there are any distortions in the local economy it is the fact that prohibition drives up price. That is simply a fact, whether one support prohibition or not.

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Filed under: War on Drugs, Afghanistan | |

3 Comments

  1. What is your proposed solution?

    Comment by Bill Vess — Sunday, August 26, 2007 @ 8:47 pm

  2. That is, of course, a complex question.

    I will say this for now, and I think it is key–we need a serious, real debate about what is working and what isn’t. And, at a minimum, we need to admit that despite spending billions and billions, that we are not getting good return on investment. By own metrics (price, supply, use) we are failing and yet the response is always to just spend more money.

    We need to recognize that the supply side attacks don’t work. We may also need to admit to ourselves that no matter what we do, a certain percentage of the population will use these substances. So yes, some sort of legalization and public health approach makes more sense.

    Is it a panacea? No. But anyone who can look at the current situation and say that is it working is simply incorrect.

    The sad thing about the entire discussion is that there is no panacea. The problem is here, and we need to stop acting like we can make it go away.

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Sunday, August 26, 2007 @ 9:19 pm

  3. I guess that is the problem from the Gov’t point of view as well. They hope the money will do something; it does not, but they can’t cut it because then they are “soft on drugs”.

    Worthwhile to read the UNDP studies on development alternative incomes in Northern Thailand. Cut flowers resulted in 40x more income to the farmers and drug growing is now pretty much gone( eg “drug dealers live with their mother”). Need a Manhatten project to develop other streams of income for these folks. My guess is that drugs will always we with us, but getting them (mostly)out of South Asia would be a big plus.

    Comment by Bill Vess — Thursday, August 30, 2007 @ 9:06 pm

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