Drug Economy in Afghanistan

"It's a Matter of Development, Not Counter-Narcotics"

The battle against the drug economy in Afghanistan has failed so far. The Senlis Council, a think tank for international drug policy, has made a surprisingly simple proposal: poppy cultivation should not be suppressed, but put under state control

. Tillmann Elliesen interviewed Emmanuel Reinert, Executive Director of the Senlis Council

Afghan farmer derives opium from a poppy bud in Afghanistan (photo: dpa)
According to the Senlis Council, opium should be taken out of the illegal drug market and used instead to make the pain killers morphine and codeine

​​While the area in Afghanistan used to plant drugs decreased this year, the harvest was almost as great as in 2004 at some 4,000 tons. The illegal opium sector makes up 60 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product.

Countries such as India and Turkey, but also Spain, Australia and France, where licensed farmers have been growing opium for medical purposes for years, could serve as role models for Afghanistan, the Senlis Council says.

The Council, founded in 2002, argues that this approach would save the livelihoods of some two million Afghan farmers who make a living of drug harvests. At the same time, the damaging side effects of the drug economy, such as corruption and violence, would be reduced.

Controlling the harvests of opium would not be more expensive than fighting the plantations. Emmanuel Reinert, Director of the Senlis Council, presented this proposal at the end of September at a symposium in Kabul and elaborated on it in this interview.

Mr. Reinert, how did the Afghan government react to your proposal?

Emmanuel Reinert: When we released the initial findings of the study, they issued a press release, saying that they welcomed the work of the Senlis Council and the fact that we were looking at the possibility of licencing opium for the production of morphine and codeine. However, they also underlined the fact that Afghanistan was not yet ready for our proposal because the government would not be able to secure such a solution. That's the official reaction...

There is also an unofficial reaction?

Reinert: Yes, in a certain way. They have to be cautious. For us the reaction was very encouraging. They were not saying that it is not possible at all, but rather that it is a question of timing. I think it was a prudent way to be positive towards our proposal. The government has to take into account the opinions of the major donors, that is the United Kingdom and the United States.

Have there been any reactions from these two countries?

Reinert: No, neither from the US administration nor from the UK. No reaction at all.

How do you explain that?

Reinert: They are engaged in a certain type of policy which focuses on eradication of opium cultivation. Our approach is totally different, it looks at the problem from a totally different perspective. That's just too new to them, they were taken by surprise, I would say. Especially so since we not only presented an idea, but a very serious study. The idea of licencing opium is a development project and not a counter-narcotics project in the first place. It is about development and economic reconstruction in Afghanistan.

When in a country the production of a crop accounts for 60 percent of the GDP, then it is not a narcotics problem anymore. It's an economic problem which cannot be tackled by repressive and military counter-narcotics policies. For the US and the UK this is kind of disturbing and they are simply not equipped to react.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime is not convinced either.

Reinert: Because it's the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), not on development and reconstruction. Their expertise is on counter-narcotics. It's typical that they reacted even before we published the detailed results of our study. In my view they don't have any strong arguments.

The UNODC argues your proposal won't work because the supply of morphine and codeine already exceeds global demand.

Reinert: That's one of the very paradoxical arguments we face. On the one hand, it is true that the supply is bigger than the formally expressed demand at the moment. However, on the other hand, the World Health Organisation and the International Narcotics Control Board are underlining the fact every year that there is urgent need for pain killers all over the world which is not met at all. 80 percent of all countries have access to only seven percent of the world production of morphine and codeine. The seven richest countries alone consume 80 percent.

There is no morphine or codeine in Latin America, Asia and in Africa, and even in western Europe there is a regular shortage. In other words, there is a huge potential market. At the moment the world market is regulated in a way that does not allow for the supply to meet the actual demand. Our proposal intends to launch an Afghan brand of morphine to address the world pain crisis as the WHO calls it.

Isn't there a danger that licencing opium might further stimulate poppy cultivation and increase the risk that parts of the harvest flow into the illegal market?

Reinert: At the moment 100 percent of the harvest are diverted in the illegal market. So the situation cannot worsen. Even if it is only one percent less it will improve the situation. However, we made a lot of interviews in the rural areas and we believe that if you give the farmers a choice between growing opium within a licence scheme and selling it to the illegal market, they will choose the first option. If you make use of the social control mechanisms at the local level, the possibility of diversion can be significantly reduced. At the same time, the more farmers opt for the licence scheme, the smaller the illegal market becomes and finally might disappear.

Is informal social control really strong enough? Would farmers resist if illegal opium traders would offer them slightly higher prices than they would get in the licence scheme?

Reinert: It's not anarchy in rural Afghanistan. There is a proper social organisation, for example local assemblies called shuras and jirgas, or assemblies of elders who take decisions.

But what about the local warlords who are involved in the drug trade and who are still very strong?

Reinert: That's another point. We made some initial studies on the value-chain of the illegal opium economy on the one hand and of a possible licenced opium economy on the other hand. The results show that the net income of the farmers would be at least as high in the licence system as today.

There are a number of overhead costs in the illegal trade, like bribes or security expenses, that wouldn't exist in a licenced system. In addition, if the opium would be transformed into morphine and codeine in Afghanistan, then the farmers would also have the possibility to benefit from the profit made from the sale of the medicines. That's also relevant for other players, including local traffickers or commanders. They could find a role to play and get a certain renumeration within the new scheme.

However, some people might be worse off. Do you fear that potential losers might violently oppose the implementation of your proposal?

Reinert: That's why it is important to build control on local mechanisms, because in the provinces nearly everybody is involved in the drug business. You have to involve everybody in the new scheme to make sure that the shift from the illegal market to the licence system won't become a source of conflict. That's one thing. The other thing is that eradication produces even more conflict for sure.

It's in the illegal economy that you have a lot of fights as well as winners and loosers. And the winners are not necessarily the ones you want to see making lots of money. So in this regard too, the licence system will make a difference. It will strengthen the rule of law in the rural communities by building upon the local mechanisms of social control.

But for licencing opium cultivation you also need effective government institutions, and the state is still rather weak in Afghanistan.

Reinert: Yes, we would need a central opium agency as well as agencies on local and district levels. The big advantage of the licence system is that the central state would be more accepted at the local level than now because it wouldn't attack the livelihoods of farmers anymore.

At the moment any initiative of the central government with regard to opium means, at the end of the day, attacking farmers who only want to earn some money to make a decent living for themselves and their families.

The licence system would preserve the livelihoods of farmers and at the same time strengthen the Afghan state. A licence system requires control, but at the same time it creates the conditions that make effective control possible. We would thus transform the vicious circle of the illegal market into a truly virtuous circle.

What are the next steps with regard to your proposal?

Reinert: In the second phase of our feasibility study we will look in detail at the economic implications of the licence system, in terms of both of the livelihoods of rural communities as well as government revenues. We will look more precisely at the local control system and check our bottom-up approach. Finally, we will also prepare a study on eradication.

We have invested a lot of resources to show that our proposal would work and it's pretty surprising that there is not a single feasibility study on eradication. What is spent on eradication, and what are the results in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world? We will take a close look at these questions.

Interview conducted by Tillmann Elliesen.

Emmanuel Reinert is the Executive Director of the Senlis Council in Paris.

© Magazine for Development and Cooperation 11/2005

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