Copping to the Poppy Crop Flop

Can the farmers and the drug warriors be friends?

"The farmers are not our enemy," the State Department's Richard Holbrooke recently declared, referring to Afghans who grow opium poppies. Since the U.S. government is officially determined to wipe out their livelihood, they could be forgiven for misunderstanding. To reassure those who interpret ripping up their crops as a hostile act, Holbrooke said, "we're going to phase out eradication."

This policy shift is a long overdue admission that anti-drug efforts in Afghanistan are strengthening the Taliban insurgency and undermining stability. But the reasons Holbrooke cited for the change apply more broadly than he is willing to acknowledge, indicting not just poppy pulling in Afghanistan but an international drug control regime that has been an expensive flop for nearly a century.

Holbrooke, the special U.S. envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, told A.P.: "Eradication is a waste of money. It might destroy some acreage, but it didn't reduce the amount of money the Taliban got by one dollar. It just helped the Taliban." By encouraging farmers to view the theocratic insurgents as defenders against foreign invaders bent on eliminating their income, he said, "the U.S. policy was driving people into the hands of the Taliban."

Although Afghanistan's counternarcotics minister responded to Holbrooke's remarks by insisting that "our strategy's perfect," he may be the only person outside the Taliban who thinks so. Last year, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Afghanistan produced 40 times as much opium as it did in 2001, the year of the U.S. invasion. It supplied 93 percent of the world's illicit opium, the export value of which was equivalent to one-third of the country's gross domestic product.

A new UNODC report shows the failure of international drug control is not limited to Afghanistan. Between 1998 and 2007—the U.N. Decade Against Drug Abuse—estimated illegal production of opium more than doubled worldwide. The average U.S. retail price for a gram of heroin, adjusted for purity and inflation, fell from $597 to $364.

Estimated production of cocaine in Latin America rose from 825 metric tons in 1998 to 994 in 2007, while the inflation-adjusted price for a pure gram fell from $189 to $162 in the U.S. Although comparable data are not available for marijuana, for years American drug warriors have been advertising their own failure in this area by warning that cannabis potency is rising.

As the UNODC notes, "the production costs of drugs comprise only a tiny fraction of their retail cost" (a fact "entirely attributable to their illegality"). That's one reason source control is futile: It does not have a noticeable impact on the street price of drugs, which acquire most of their value after arriving in destination countries. But if Holbrooke is right that crop eradication is a counterproductive "waste of money" in Afghanistan, how can it be a good idea in Colombia, Peru, or Bolivia?

Focusing on traffickers, which is what the U.S. now plans to do in Afghanistan, is no more effective at reducing access to drugs than focusing on farmers. "Traffickers have proven to be resilient and innovative," the UNODC notes. Consequently, it says, "law enforcement has not succeeded in stopping the flow of drugs," and the most that can be expected is to shift the traffic from one route to another.

Meanwhile, the UNODC concedes, prohibition breeds "violence and corruption" while delivering "obscene profits" not only to the Taliban but to rebels, terrorists, and thugs throughout the world, from Helmand province to Ciudad Juarez. The report notes that the attempt to prevent people from using politically incorrect intoxicants has "enriched dangerous criminals, who kill and bribe their way from the countries where drugs are produced to the countries where drugs are consumed."

UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa has a solution, however. "It is no longer sufficient to say: no to drugs," he writes. "We have to state an equally vehement: no to crime." Why didn't anyone think of that before?

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Copyright 2009 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  • ||

    What will convince our policy makers that the drug war has and will never work? It's a loosing battle that can't be won! Why are governments so un-willing to look at alternatives and just brush legalising drugs as a looney idea?

    Ignorance, arrogance, a firm belief that one day it will eventually work? Who knows?

  • Art-P.O.G.||

    Arrogance, fear and self-delusion, I think.

  • Cabeza de Vaca||

    "Arrogance, fear and self-delusion, I think."

    True, but I think power is the main reason. If legalization happened a lot of government employees would be out of jobs.

  • Art-P.O.G.||

    You're right about that, too, C d V. It matters not to most of the political class that many of them deserve to lose their jobs.

  • ||

    "That's the secret. You gotta play this game with fear and [ignorance]."

  • ||

    If legalization happened a lot of government employees would be out of jobs.

    Not to mention that one of the main lynchpins for the intrusion of the Total State into our lives will be gone. The destruction of civil liberties in this country is primarily a result of the War on Drugs, not the War on Terror.

  • ||

    BIgger government with more agencies (like the DEA and ATF). All that alphabet soup makes my head hurt, my wallet leaner and still does little to stem the tide of these so-called dangers to society that are posed by drugs and their purveyors (turned criminal by the government).

    It's ironic that this industry was turned into a criminal racket by the same agencies and tactic that are now supposedly being used to fight them.

    We just need to get morals out of government. I don't care if some loser gets high. I don't care if some politician cheats on his spouse. I don't care if two dudes nail each other (married or not). The government should not be in the morality and family values business.

  • ||

    Not to mention that one of the main lynchpins for the intrusion of the Total State into our lives will be gone. The destruction of civil liberties in this country is primarily a result of the War on Drugs, not the War on Terror.

    Have you noticed the integration of the two concepts by the Statists? "Narco-terrorists" is my favorite catch-all. Between terrorism, drugs, and "saving" the financial industry, they basically control all money at this point as well. Those Suspicious Activity Reports are right out of the Soviet Union's terminology.

    Ironically, the theocratic statists of Iran and the progressive statists of the West can agree on something: Totalitarian oppression as antidote to intoxicating substances. They both buffonishly fail while inflicting massive damage and corrupting tendencies on their societies, but it keeps them with an excuse to do so.

  • Pat||

    The UNODC 2005 World Drug Report had a very interesting economic analysis that could contribute greatly to the current debate. The PDF "Volume 1: Analysis". http://mysite.verizon.net/aahpat/aandc/distr/volume_1_web.pdf

    "Based on the inputs and the calculations explained above, the value of the global illicit drug market for the year 2003 was estimated at US$13 bn at the production level, at $94 bn at the wholesale level (taking seizures into account), and at US$322bn based on retail prices and taking seizures and other losses into account. This indicates that despite seizures and losses, the value of the drugs increase substantially as they move from producer to consumer."

    North America is estimated at 44% of that value. $141bn annual consumer demand between the U.S. Canada and Mexico.

    While there are several estimates of the global drug markets this is the official UNODC estimate and so the U.N. can't wiggle out of it themselves. The U.S. worked overtime to denounce it and the U.N. never again made estimates at all.

  • Pat||

    "If legalization happened a lot of government employees would be out of jobs."

    There would be regulators and their minions.

    A lot of healthcare and distribution jobs would open up in the intoxicant drug markets. Industrial hemp would open vast U.S. acreage to 3-4 crop seasons and provide durable textile fibers that can give northern states farmers new opportunities.

    If we let the Afghan farmers grow industrial hemp they could quickly re-invigorate their textile industry.

  • ||

    For years farmers in the US have been paid not to grow certain crops and the solution here is to pay the poppy growers a guaranteed, sustainable, living wage not to grow poppies.This would be less costly in men and money than trying to interdict supply lines. The farmers could concentrate on growing food or other cash crops
    to increase their earnings.

  • LarryA||

    "It is no longer sufficient to say: no to drugs," he writes. "We have to state an equally vehement: no to crime."

    Second verse, same as the first. Just say no to prohibition.

    For years farmers in the US have been paid not to grow certain crops and the solution here is to pay the poppy growers a guaranteed, sustainable, living wage not to grow poppies.

    Leaving the narcos several options:
    1. "We'll pay double whatever the government offers."
    2. "We'll go to farmers the government isn't paying."
    3. "We'll go to countries we haven't bothered yet."

    If there's a market, the poppies will get grown one way or another.

  • ||

    Jacob Sullum,
    That was a very unsatisfying, squishy ending to your piece: The UN is saying "no" to crime as if it could actually really put a stop to crime, and you're letting that pass?

  • abercrombie milano||

    My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I'm sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won't get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there's more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I'm not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It's just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight...the Bible's books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on...the Bible's books were written by people with very different mindsets...in order to really get the Books of the Bible, you have to cultivate such a mindset, it's literally a labyrinth, that's no joke

  • nike shox||

    is good

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