Afghan opium: License to kill

Afghan Opium: License to kill

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy

Asia Times, February 1, 2006.


In June 1906, Charles Henry Brent, the first Protestant Episcopal Church bishop of the Philippines and a staunch opponent of the opium trade, wrote to president Theodore Roosevelt to ask for the United States to call an international conference to enforce anti-opium measures in China. 

The conference was held in Shanghai in 1909. One hundred years after Bishop Brent’s letter, the global prohibition of opium and certain other drugs has largely failed, in spite of, or maybe because of, more than 30 years of the “war on drugs” launched in 1971 by the administration of US president Richard Nixon.

This is what was stressed at a conference on “Drug Production and State Stability” recently held in Paris, when Alfred McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin and author of The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, explained that, “after fighting five drug wars in 30 years at a cost of US$150 billion, Washington has presided over a [fivefold] increase” in the world illicit-opium supply, from 1,000 tonnes in 1970 to between 5,000 and 6,000 tonnes in the mid-2000s.

This was exemplified in late 2005 when the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) confirmed that Afghanistan was still and by far the world’s first producing country of illicit opium, despite alternative development efforts, eradication measures, and widely lauded achievements in democracy and state-building in the country.

Clearly, as has now been stated by many observers and analysts, the danger for Afghanistan is that a hastened suppression or eradication program will, in the absence of alternative livelihoods being widely promoted, damage the fragile rural economy, prove counterproductive in the mid-term, and impede sustainable solutions to the Afghan crisis.

Indeed, in a 2004 interview, Doris Buddenberg, the head of UNODC in Afghanistan, said, “Eradication usually does not bring about a sustainable reduction of poppy crop – it is a one-time, short-term effort. Also eradication usually pushes the prices up. As we have seen from the Taliban period, the one-year ban on opium-poppy cultivation increased prices enormously the following year and it became extremely attractive for farmers to cultivate poppy.”

However, in December 2005, only a few weeks after having lauded “the largest decrease [of opium-poppy cultivation] ever recorded in a single year in any country”, Buddenberg said there were “signs cultivation may increase next year in many areas, in part because of pressure on farmers to grow opium poppies and their own concerns about making a living”, thus without clearly acknowledging that the so-called “success” in reducing opium-poppy cultivation in Afghanistan in 2004-05 had already been and was still to be largely counterproductive.

In such a context, where both interdiction and development have failed to solve the “opium problem” in Afghanistan, because interdiction without development amounts to further deteriorating the livelihoods of opium farmers, and alternative development is far from having been implemented with adequate economic means and political determination, a rather new, but unrealistic, proposal has emerged: the licensing of Afghan opium for production of pharmaceutical morphine.

Described as “a truly winning solution” by many, the proposal of the Senlis Council, an “international drug-policy think-tank” based in Paris, consists of licensing Afghan opium for the production of legal medicines such as morphine and codeine as a way to respond to the urgent need to significantly reduce Afghanistan’s illegal opium production and trade, but also as a way to overcome the “significant global shortage of opium-based medicines such as morphine and codeine”, a problem “felt most acutely in the developing world”.

This proposal, however, is based on false or inexact premises, on at least two levels: regarding the world market on the one hand, and national and local opium-farming communities on the other hand.

Supply and demand of opioid analgesics

According to the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), which is in charge of examining on a regular basis issues affecting the supply of and demand for opiates used for medical purposes, the supply of such opiates has for years been “at levels well in excess of global demand”.

In fact, as stocks continue to be more than sufficient to cover global demand for one year, the INCB even recommends reducing the production of opiate raw materials. Nevertheless, the INCB stresses that “the low consumption of opioid analgesics for the treatment of moderate to severe pain, especially in developing countries, continues to be a matter of great concern”.

“In 2003, six countries together accounted for 79% of global consumption of morphine” while “developing countries, which represent about 80% of the world’s population, accounted for only about 6%” of its global consumption. Thus, for the INCB, the urgency is more “to raise awareness of the necessity to assess the actual medical needs for opiates” in the world than to increase the production of legal medical morphine in countries such as Afghanistan.

This is easily understandable when one knows that most governments in the world did not respond to the INCB questionnaire on their medical needs and that information about half of the needs of the world’s population was insufficient.

However, simply raising levels of morphine production, whether by licensing opium production in Afghanistan or by increasing the yields of current producers, is unlikely to increase the medical consumption of morphine and codeine in the world.

The recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) that morphine and codeine be used as analgesics are too often impeded by obstacles that are not, or not only, supply-related: concerns about drug addiction and drug diversion, restrictive national laws, insufficient import or manufacture, but also deficiencies in national health-care delivery systems, insufficient training, etc.

Of course, the demand for modern analgesics is also related to the importance of conventional or allopathic medicine with regard to local traditions and beliefs. In China for example, according to WHO, traditional herbal preparations account for 30-50% of the total medicinal consumption, while in Africa up to 80% of the population uses traditional medicine for primary health care.

Thus, obviously, the world’s medical consumption of opiates is far from being directly dependent on supply and demand, and price contingencies, as was actually hinted by the Senlis Council itself when it stressed that “in 2002, 77% of the world’s morphine was consumed by seven rich countries: [the] US, the UK, Italy, Australia, France, Spain and Japan”, but that, according to official figures, “even in these countries only 24% of moderate to severe pain-relief need was being met”.

The fact that medical consumption of opiates is low even in rich morphine-producing countries clearly shows that the consumption of opiate-based painkillers is determined by factors more complex than only those of the market.

Indian licit vs. Afghan illicit opium production

As far as Afghanistan and its opium farmers are concerned now, the licensing of the illicit opium supply is very unlikely to help develop them economically.

First, it is important to understand that while legal opium-poppy cultivation is undertaken for pharmaceutical use by 12 countries (Australia, China, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, India, Japan, Slovakia, Spain, Macedonia, Turkey and the United Kingdom), only one of them, India, produces opium, the latex that bleeds, coagulates and is harvested from incised opium-poppy capsules. The 11 other actually grow opium poppies to harvest poppy straw and produce concentrate of poppy straw (CPS) in the context of a modern mechanized agriculture that resorts for the most part to combine harvesters on large tracts of cultivated land.

Conversely, because opium harvesting is a long and arduous manual process, it requires a numerous and, more than anything, cheap local workforce if the opium and morphine production process is to be economically viable. For that reason, and also because of international agreements derived from the role the opium economy played in its colonial past, opium is only legally produced in India.

Of course, since 12 countries already produce raw opium materials to make morphine, codeine and thebaine, and have significantly increased the concentration of alkaloids in opium-poppy plants, the INCB, pursuant to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, wishes to “to avoid the proliferation of supply sites” to prevent diversion of opium-poppy plants and seeds licitly produced to the illicit market.

Diversion from the licit to the illicit market occurs much more easily with opium than concentrate of poppy straw, as the Indian example shows us.

In India, legal opium producing occurs in selected tracts in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. The Indian central government sets an opium minimum qualifying yield (MQY) according to the yields reported by farmers the previous years. During the 2004-05 crop year (8,770 licensed hectares), MQY of 58 kilograms per hectare in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and of 49kg in Uttar Pradesh had to be achieved by opium farmers to be eligible for the renewal of their license in 2005-06.

Cultivators are issued a license for growing poppies and the entire opium produced by all farmers is purchased by and only by the Central Bureau of Narcotics at a price fixed by the central government. The price paid to the farmers depends on the yields achieved, with farmers producing more opium getting paid a higher price per kilogram: in 2004-05, the minimum price paid per kilogram was Rs750 (US$17) for yields up to 44kg per hectare. The maximum price paid was Rs2,200 for yields above 100kg/ha. The average national yield was 56kg/ha and was paid at a price Rs1,150 per kilogram.

However, it is important to bear in mind that, to try to prevent diversion to the illicit market, in 2004-05 the maximum licensed area to be cultivated in opium poppies was 0.10 hectare. Therefore, the maximum income that Indian farmers can derive from legal opium production is limited by fixed prices and by limitation of areas cultivated by each of them.

With such low prices paid to Indian opium farmers, diversion to the illegal market, where opium can fetch prices as much as four to five times the minimum government price, clearly takes place; although there is no reliable estimate of such diversion.

The 2005 International Control Strategy Report of the US Department of State stresses that “in 2004, the government of India discovered and shut down six morphine base laboratories in India’s opium-growing areas; four in Uttar Pradesh and two in Madhya Pradesh”.

The fact that the central government raises the MQY and the official price paid to farmers is clearly not enough to keep some of them from diverting part of their harvest to the illegal market. It is worth noting that the CBN recently tightened its control on opium farming and against diversion, drastically lowering the number of hectares licensed (from 21,141 in 2003-04 to 8,771 in 2004-05) and the number of farmers licensed (from 105,697 in 2003-04 to 87,682 in 2004-05).

Shortcomings of opium licensing in Afghanistan

The proposal to license opium production in Afghanistan thus raises an important question: Would the prices paid to opium farmers be high enough to provide them with a sufficient income and to enable the development of the Afghan rural economy while, in the meantime, preventing opium diversion from the licit to the illicit market?

In Afghanistan, opium prices have varied greatly during the past decade, ranging from $23 to $350 per kilogram of fresh opium at harvest time. In 2005, the average farm-gate price of fresh opium at harvest time was $102 per kilogram (average yield: 39 kg/ha) and 309,000 families, or about 2 million persons (8.7% of the population) were involved in opium-poppy cultivation, itinerant workers not included.

Such prices, which are far from enriching Afghan opium farmers but simply allow them to cope with poverty, only need to be compared to those of India to realize that licit opium production in Afghanistan could not compete with illicit opium production, that most opium farmers would still have to give up opium production while the others would see their revenues plummet, and that, considering the limited writ and power of the Afghan authorities, diversion from the licit to the illicit market would be unavoidable and would reach much higher proportions than in India.

More important, licensing opium production in Afghanistan would not be better than eradication or alternative development at addressing the causes of the recourse to illegal opium production and would thus fail to fulfill the international community’s objective: the suppression of illegal opium production. If crop substitution proved to be a failure in the past decades, why would the substitution of an illegal opium production for a legal opium production work better by reducing farmers’ income and not addressing the structural factors causing illegal opium production?

It is crucial to understand that, contrary to what has often been denounced here and there, opium production is more a consequence of Afghanistan’s lawlessness, instability and poverty than its cause. Opium production clearly proceeds from poverty and food insecurity, from Afghanistan to Myanmar and Laos, where it is a coping mechanism and livelihood strategy.

Opium production is a vital element in the livelihood strategies of part of the Afghan rural population, providing peasants not only with a source of income, but also with access to land and credit. More than opium production as such, it is therefore poverty and the shortcomings of the Afghan agrarian system that should be tackled.

It is alternative livelihoods that must be promoted, in a way that counter-narcotics objectives are mainstreamed into national development strategies and programs, if the causes of opium-poppy cultivation are to be addressed and illicit opium production eventually curtailed.


About the author

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy

Dr. Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy holds a Ph.D. in Geography from the Sorbonne University (Paris) and an HDR (Habilitation à diriger des recherches or "accreditation to supervise research"). He is a CNRS Research Fellow attached to the PRODIG research team (UMR 8586).

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy est docteur en géographie, habilité à diriger des recherches (HDR), et chargé de recherche au CNRS. Il est membre de l'équipe PRODIG (UMR 8586).