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Why Afghanistan’s Poppies Aren’t the Problem


For years, there has been much discussion about the best strategy to rid Afghanistan of its poppies. Eradication, says Bush. Interdiction and alternative livelihoods, retorts Obama. Licensing and production for medicinal purposes, suggested the Senlis Council. The issues have been fiercely debated: Would there be enough demand for Afghanistan’s legal morphine? Is the government too corrupt to implement this or that scheme? To what extent will eradication alienate farmers? Which crops should we substitute for poppies?

These questions are not unimportant, but fundamentally, they do not address the primary source of Afghan drug production: the West’s (and Russia’s) insatiable demand for drugs.

Afghanistan accounts for about 90% of global illicit opium production. Western Europe and Russia are its two largest markets in terms of quantities consumed and market value (the United States is not an important market for Afghan opiates, importing the drugs from Latin America instead). Western Europe (26%) and Russia (21%) together consume almost half (47%) the heroin produced in the world, with four countries accounting for 60% of the European market: the United Kingdom, Italy, France and Germany. In economic terms, the world’s opiates market is valued at $65 billion, of which heroin accounts for $55 billion. Nearly half of the overall opiate market value is accounted for by Europe (some $20 billion) and Russia ($13 billion). (Iran is also a large consumer of opium, with smaller amounts of heroin). The situation is similar for cocaine, for which the US and Europe are the two dominant markets (virtually all coca cultivation takes place in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia). [1]

In short, it is the West that has a drug problem, not producer countries like Afghanistan (or Colombia): demand is king and drives the global industry.
How should we reduce opiate consumption and its negative consequences in the West and Russia? Drug policy research has typically offered four methods. There is a wide consensus among researchers that such methods should be ranked as follows, from most to least effective:

1) treatment of addicts,

2) prevention,

3) enforcement, and

4) overseas operations in producer countries.

For example, twelve established analysts reached the following conclusions, published a few months ago [2]:

“Efforts by wealthy countries to curtail cultivation of drug-producing plants in poor countries have not reduced aggregate drug supply or use in downstream markets, and probably never will… it will fail even if current efforts are multiplied many times over.”

“A substantial expansion of [treatment] services, particularly for people dependent on opiates, is likely to produce the broadest range of benefits… yet, most societies invest in these services at a low level.”

Also, a widely cited 1994 RAND study concluded that targeting “source countries” is 23 times less cost effective than “treatment” for addicts domestically, the most effective method; “interdiction” was estimated to be 11 times less cost effective and “domestic enforcement” 7 times. [3]

The problem is that the West’s drug policy strategy has for years emphasized enforcement, combined to overseas adventures, to the detriment of treatment and prevention.

Also, Russia has been complaining about the suspension of eradication in Afghanistan, but it has a very poor record of offering treatment to its own addicts, rejecting widely accepted scientific evidence. Moscow has chosen a strategy that “serves the end of social control and enforcement,” just like the US: criminalization is emphasized and the largest share of public resources is directed to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate drug users, instead of offering them treatment. This worsens Russia’s HIV epidemic, the fastest growing in the world—with nearly one million HIV infections, some 80% of which related to the sharing of drug needles—while syringe availability remains very limited. For instance, methadone and buprenorphine remain prohibited by law in Russia, even if they are effective in reducing the drug problem by shifting addicts from illegal opiates to safer, legal alternatives. [4]

Accordingly, a just released New York University report states that “Nothing that happens in Afghanistan, for good or ill, would affect the Russian drug problem nearly as much as the adoption of methadone” in Russia—which would also help Afghanistan reduce poppy cultivation. [5]

Obama announced last year that the US would have access to seven military bases in Colombia under the pretext of fighting a war on terror and a war on drugs. Likewise, Russia recently announced that it would set up a second military base in Kyrgyzstan, to combat drug trafficking. Victor Ivanov, the Director of the Russian Federal Drug Control Service, explained how he was inspired by US drug war tactics in Latin America:

“The United States’ experience is certainly quite effective. The powerful flow of cocaine from Colombia into the United States prompted Washington to set up seven military bases in the Latin American nation in question. The US then used aircraft to destroy some 230,000 hectares of coca plantations… Russia suggests building its military base in Kyrgyzstan since it is the republic’s Osh region that is a centre of sorts whence drugs are channelled throughout Central Asia.” [6]

Europe’s record on drug policy has improved over the last two decades, important advances having been made to bring harm reduction into the mainstream of drug policy, and rates of drug usage for each category of drugs are lower in the EU than in other states with a far more criminalized drug policy, such as the US, Canada and Australia. [7]

But there is still room for improvement. For example, although opioid substitution treatment and needle and syringe exchange programs now reach more addicts, “important differences between [European] countries continue to exist in scale and coverage”, a recent review of harm reduction policies in Europe concludes. In particular, “Overall provision of substitution treatment in the Baltic States and the central and south-east European regions, except in Slovenia, remains low despite some recent increases. An estimate from Estonia suggests that only 5% of heroin users in the four major urban centres are covered by substitution programmes, and that this rate is as low as 1% at national level.” [8]

Lack of funds is no excuse, as there is plenty of money available, for instance, out of the $300 billion Europeans spend every year on their militaries, to maintain among other things their more than 30,000 troops in Afghanistan.

The UK was put in charge of counternarcotics in Afghanistan. However, domestically, leading specialists Peter Reuter and Alex Stevens report that “Despite rhetorical commitments to the rebalancing of drug policy spending towards treatment… the bulk of public expenditure continues to be devoted to criminal justice measures… this emphasis on enforcement in drug control expenditures also holds for the most explicitly harm reduction-oriented country, the Netherlands.” In the UK, over 1994-2005, “the number of prison cell years handed out in annual sentences has tripled” (although significant increases have also been made towards treatment). “The prison population has increased rapidly in the past decade [and] the use of imprisonment has increased even more rapidly for drug offenders than other offenders… These increases have contributed significantly to the current prison overcrowding crisis.”

British enforcement costs taxpayers dearly, but the government does not regularly or publicly calculate those costs. Through a Freedom of Information request a document was released that “calculated the annual cost of enforcing drug laws—including police, probation, prison and court costs—at approximately £2.19 billion, of which about £581 million was spent on imprisoning drug offenders.” [9]

All this said, there is one way in which Afghanistan does have a drug problem, namely, its increasing number of addicts. A recent UNODC report estimated that drug use had increased dramatically over the last few years and that around one million Afghans now suffer from drug addiction, or 8% of the population—twice the global average. Since 2005, the number of regular opium users in Afghanistan has grown from 150,000 to 230,000 (a 53% increase) and for heroin, from 50,000 to 120,000 (a 140% increase). This spreads HIV/AIDS because most injecting drug users share needles.

But treatment resources are very deficient. Only about 10% of addicts have ever received treatment, meaning that about 700,000 are left without it, which prompted UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa to call for much greater resources for drug prevention and treatment in the country. But the problem is that the Obama and Bush administrations could not care less: since 2005, they have allocated less than $18 million to “demand reduction” activities in Afghanistan—an amount less than 1% of the $2 billion they spent on eradication and interdiction. [10] Clearly, US priorities have nothing to do with fighting a war on drugs.

JULIEN MERCILLE is lecturer at University College Dublin, Ireland. He specializes in U.S. foreign policy and geopolitics. He can be reached at jmercille[at]gmail[dot]com.


[1] UNODC, World Drug Report 2010.

[2] Thomas Babor et al., Drug Policy and the Public Good, Oxford, 2010.

[3] RAND, Controlling Cocaine: Supply Versus Demand Programs, 1994.

[4] Richard Elovich and Ernest Drucker, “On drug treatment and social control: Russian narcology’s great leap backwards”, Harm Reduction Journal, 2008.

[5] Jonathan Caulkins et al., Drug Production and Trafficking, Counterdrug Policies, and Security and Governance in Afghanistan, New York University, 2010.

[6] The Voice of Russia, “Russia to set up antidrug military base in Kyrgyzstan”, 25 June 2010.

[7] Glenn Greenwald, Drug Decriminalization in Portugal, CATO Institute, 2009.

[8] Dagmar Hedrich et al. “From margin to mainstream: The evolution of harm reduction responses to problem drug use in Europe”, Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy, December 2008.

[9] Peter Reuter and Alex Stevens, “Assessing UK drug policy from a crime control perspective”, Criminology and Criminal Justice, 2008.

[10] UNODC, Drug Use in Afghanistan: 2009 Survey (Executive Summary); GAO, Afghanistan Drug Control, March 2010.



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