At Least One Thing in Afghanistan Is Improving: Opium Productivity

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Although acreage devoted to opium poppies in Afghanistan supposedly has been reduced by one-fifth, production remains virtually unchanged, and the country is still estimated to supply 87 percent of the world's heroin. (As Toby Muse reported in the June issue of Reason, something similar is happening in Colombia, where a crackdown on coca cultivation seems to have spurred improvements in productivity.) But Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, still thinks opium can be eradicated from Afghanistan…in about 20 years.

Implausible as that projection is, Costa is a realist compared to his predecessor, Pino Arlacchi. "Global coca leaf and opium poppy acreage totals an area less than half the size of Puerto Rico," Arlacchi said in 1998. "There is no reason it cannot be eliminated in little more than a decade."

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  1. I figured it out! Osama bin Laden is hiding in a poppy field! No wonder we can’t find him.

  2. The only thing we have to do is get the politicians to repeal the laws of supply and demand, that’ll teach em’!

  3. The war on terror has increased terrorist “productivity,” eh?

  4. And some good news from the state of Washington…police have done such a great job of cracking down on local meth-makers that they’re finding more and more if it being imported. The police even admit the *real* problem is that as long as there is demand, there will be a supply.
    I’m hoping if we manage to out-source all meth production I can go back to buying cold medicine over-the-counter.

  5. With the eradication of opium, what are the huge
    growing population of older people with intense pain
    supposed to rely on? Aspirin?

  6. Just one more example of illegals taking away home-grown jobs, Johnny.

  7. Yeah, I can imagine those large, colorful Afghani poppy fields, with huge green castles in the middle of them.

  8. I know Karzai can’t say this because he’ll instantly be out of a job, but I’ve always wondered why lower level Afghan politicians don’t come out in favor of legalizing opium production. Aside from the libertarian arguments against drug prohibition, if a commodity makes up half or more of your entire GDP, criminalizing it is just plain stupid.

  9. SR-

    First think of all the money involved.

    Now, what was your question?

  10. “First think of all the money involved.”

    But that’s just it, there isn’t that much money involved. Every statistic I’ve seen indicates that foreign aid to Afghanistan is a fraction of the value of its opium production, and while I’m sure cabinet members can skim enough graft from the aid to make it worthwhile, I doubt the average MP can.

  11. Somewhat on and off topic- last night I saw a program on how drug cartels have invaded Sequoia National Forest, and all the problems Marijuana cultivation has caused there. A ranger they interviewed admitted that despite destroying more gardens each year, next year they seem to be back with more and more. And after counting off a litany of problems (physical threats to campers who stumble onto fields, environmental degradation), they ask the question, building up to commercial, “can anything be done to stop this?”

    Duh. *We* all know the answer, but predictably it was never brought up.

  12. SR-

    You’re thinking about aid. That’s not the money I’m talking about.

    If the Afghan opium crop moved out of the black market, more money might flow into the treasury through taxes but less would flow to warlords and politicians.

  13. “If the Afghan opium crop moved out of the black market, more money might flow into the treasury through taxes but less would flow to warlords and politicians.”

    While I agree that prohibition functions as a price support system and creates opportunity for corruption, that’s at best a partial explanation as not every industry is subject to total prohibition.

  14. SR-

    Point taken. But remember that Afghanistan has a recent history of officials manipulating the opium crop via prohibition. In 2001 the Taliban cracked down heavily on opium production. This has the 2-pronged effect of cutting off revenue for rival warlords and inflating the price of their stockpile. (The Economist routinely discusses this point.) Afghanistan may have a new central government in Kabul and its suburbs, but outside that it’s all about the warlords.

  15. They wouldn’t grow poppies if our retarded “War on Drugs” (maybe it should be renamed “War on Common Sense”) didn’t make growing them so exceedngly profitable.

  16. SR,
    There was a recent article in Reason about some Columbian politicians who have advocated just what you are proposing Afghanistan do. In the end though, we can’t expect them to adopt sensible drug policies when we can’t even do it. Especially when you consider how our war on drugs has completely distorted their economy and put so much power into the hands of the warlords and drug trafficers.

  17. But Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, still thinks opium can be eradicated from Afghanistan…in about 20 years.

    Have the statists have abandoned Five Year Plans for Twenty Year Plans? Not that the results will be any different: missed targets, crappy quality (in the WoD, crappy quality manifests itself in death and destruction of bystanders) and lots of corruption.

  18. “With the eradication of opium, what are the huge
    growing population of older people with intense pain
    supposed to rely on? Aspirin?”

    Actually, correct me if I’m wrong here, but I don’t think most prescription opiates rely on poppies. I think they are synthesized chemically in a lab. They’re still every bit as addictive, they just have nothing to do with Afghanistan.

  19. JS,
    Most of the prescription opiates are derived from natural sources, but India’s legal, and tightly controlled, opium production supplies almost all of it. Of course, they sell it for pennies on the dollar to the Pharma’s and the government is always on the lookout for a farmer sneaking any to the black market.

  20. This is Michael Porter with a vengeance. The very heavy hand of the state is circumvented by producers in a both destructive (not a very nice product)and productive way.

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