Opium for the Masses

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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.

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  1. If demand drives supply, though, increasing demand for the crop will raise prices and/or encourage other people to switch from other crops to opium to meet the demand of both governments and recreational opiate producers.

    If it raises prices, though, you’ll probably see people turning from heroin to other, lower-priced drugs. Now, what’s something that we can make from coca so poeple will switch to patriotic, non-terrorist US marijuana?

  2. Just last evening I was watching a show on the History Channel about the history of opiates in the US. I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me before, but it was news to me that opium had originally been banned in the US primarily because people in polite society were worried that chinese immigrants were using opium to seduce white women.

  3. I agree that stimulating demand will produce negative unintended consequences.

    Yet, by recognizing these farmers are producing something of value to the “legal” world, we can begin to invite them to participate as active partners in an ordered “above ground” economy. Is that benefit worth the bad stuff? I lean toward the affirmative. The illegal market will always exist. If Team Terror has to bid against Team Liberty for the poppy supply, Team Terror will have less money for blowing us up. And any farmer not bent on jihad would probably prefer to participate in and get the benefits of legal operation (loans/capital investment, better market information, warm fuzzy feelings of community, etc.).

  4. mk,

    I highly recommend David Musto’s One Hundred Years of Heroin. The banning of raw opium was indeed the result of anti-Chinese bigotry, but the banning of pharmaceutical opiates (morphine, Bayer’s heroin) was largely due to a change in the addict population. At one time many, if not most, addicts were white, southern women (see Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night), but when inner city ethnic toughs became the paradigmatic user then came the crackdown. There were other issues involved, of course.

  5. What??? I thought it was like, BAM, one shot of junk, and you’re hooked for life!!! at least that’s what my friendly neighborhood peace officer told me.

  6. I agree that stimulating demand will produce negative unintended consequences. But I don’t see anything in the article that is an actual stimulation of demand. The deamnd is already there – the need for painkillers and the desires of the recreational users. No one is talking about trying to encourage more recreational use or ramping up the number of people who need painkillers.

    Some of the black market is already caused by the restrictions elsewhere. Busting a pain doctor only helps shift some of the demand to the meth-lab-in-a-U-Haul.

  7. I suppose if we want to screw up the Afghan opium market, we could get Khabul to introduce an equivalent of our tobacco quota system.

    Kevin

  8. Thanks mtm, I will put it on the list.
    They did actually did mention the ease at which the housewives of the era used heroin and Laudanum. Apparently you could get your junk and works from the Sears catalog. Of course, if I had been a woman in that era, I’d have found it to be awfully tempting (See the Yellow Wallpaper by I-forget-who).
    It’s kind of a piece with finding out that marijuana was originally banned because polite society didn’t like the behavior of those dirty mexicans. Nanny state do-gooders seem to have been an intricate part of the fabric of our society from the beginning.

  9. I wonder what percentage of “heroin addicts” are actually people with pain conditions who don’t have access to legal treatments for their suffering? It’s well known that people frequently self-medicate with illegal drugs, so increasing access to legal drugs may actually help stem some of the demand for illegal drugs. Of course, given that the legal drug is basically the same drug as the illegal drug, it’s not at all clear that there’s a good reason to support switching from one to the other. Is there some reason to believe that opioid painkillers are better somehow than illicit opioid drugs?

  10. safety and purity of the drug is the biggest concern, amy. as in, some dick cut his coke with rat poison.

  11. “Opium for the Masses”

    Track One: “I Just Can’t Get Enough”

  12. safety and purity….

    Not to mention the safety that comes from not having to deal with criminal scumbags or getting arrested or shot by the cops.

  13. I think you mean “Racist nanny state do-gooders seem to have been an intricate part of the fabric of our society from the beginning.

  14. This thread is getting further and further from Afghanistan, but the War on Drugs in the US is racist right now, and, sadly, the last people to grasp that are African-Americans.

  15. Morphine remains one of the most effective pain relievers ever invented, there is no reason why someone can’t function normally using it regularly while under a doctor’s care. I can’t see how it can have an addiction rate higher that Hydrocodone and Oxycontin – given the fact that most of those addicts generally get it black market and/or had addiction issues prior to using it.

    As far as the U.S. producing it and distributing it to the world’s poor…seems a bit utopian to me. I’d feel a lot better if we just let Bayer buy it and look the other way. Seems the financially prudent thing to do.

  16. jc: I meant the demand for opium poppies, not the demand for painkillers of any legal status. Carry on…

  17. sure seems like a no-brainer. but…

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