In a New York Times op-ed piece, Reason contributor Maia Szalavitz proposes that, rather than trying to eradicate Afghanistan's huge opium crop, the U.S. should support using it to make much-needed painkillers for patients in developing countries. The Senlis Council, a European drug-policy research organization, "estimates that meeting the global need for pain medications would require 10,000 tons of opium a year–more than twice Afghanistan's current production," she writes. "Even if we paid exactly what the drug lords do, the entire crop would cost only about $600 million–less than the $780 million the United States planned to spend on eradication in Afghanistan this year."
It's an intriguing idea that may help to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan between the war on terrorism and the war on drugs. But diverting the current opium crop to medical uses will not eliminate the demand for black market heroin, which will still be supplied by farmers in Afghanistan or other countries. As Szalavitz notes, "eradication efforts have never eliminated a drug crop," largely because cracking down in one place simply pushes production elsewhere. As long as there is a demand, there will be a supply.
Szalavitz, in a lead that may have been the product of editorial changes at the Times, says "Afghanistan's immense opium harvest…fuels heroin addiction," which suggests that the supply creates its own demand. Yet later in the piece she correctly notes that mere exposure to opiates does not produce addiction: "Research shows that addiction is exceedingly uncommon among pain patients without a history of it." Whatever the reasons why heroin appeals to some people as a way of relieving stress or unhappiness, they will not change simply because Afghan farmers find legal markets for their opium.