Anti-Heroin Hero Explains Why Afghan Flop Is Everyone Else's Fault


In this Sunday's New York Times Magazine, Thomas Schweich, a former State Department counternarcotics official, asks, "Is Afghanistan a Narco-State?" Schweich takes 5,500 words to tell his tale of how the good work of brave, committed drug warriors like himself was stymied by "an odd cabal of timorous Europeans, myopic media outlets, corrupt Afghans, blinkered Pentagon officers, politically motivated Democrats and the Taliban." But the short answer to the headine question is yes. A more interesting question, one that Schweich never asks: Why is Afghanistan a narco-state? Schweich warns that the opium trade finances the Taliban insurgency (as well as President Hamid Karzai's allies) and bemoans the corruption, violence, and lawlessness associated with it. Yet he never acknowledges that all these phenomena are consequences of drug prohibition, a policy the United States has insisted on exporting to other countries for nearly a century. It's not hard to see why he omits this point, since his solution to prohibition-related problems is more vigorous enforcement of prohibition.

Schweich repeatedly condemns U.S., British, and Afghan officials who are reluctant to support a more aggressive crackdown on opium, who oppose tactics such as aerial herbicide spraying and execution of traffickers. He never considers the possibility that their resistance might be due to something other than timorousness, myopia, corruption, blindness, political partisanship, or fanatical hatred of America. Yet some critics of Schweich's gung-ho approach, including American and British military officials, view the anti-drug fight as not just distracting but counterproductive, alienating Afghan farmers and strengthening the Taliban. Schweich reports he was astonished to discover that "British forces—centered in Helmand—actually issued leaflets and bought radio advertisements telling the local criminals that the British military was not part of the anti-poppy effort." Schweich brags that he put a stop to that. But is it really so crazy to reassure people whose support you're trying to win (or whose violent opposition you're trying to avoid) that your aim is not to deprive them of their livelihood or to wipe out half of their country's economy?

Schweich also never quite explains the ultimate goal of "the anti-poppy effort." He writes that "eradication was an essential component of successful anti-poppy efforts in Guatemala, Southeast Asia and Pakistan." And now Afghanistan supplies 90 percent of the world's opium. If Schweich has his way and opium eradication there becomes a top U.S. priority, and if it is ultimately "successful," surely that will be the end of it. No one will grow opium poppies anywhere else, so heroin use will disappear.

Here's a fun fact Schweich mentions: The land devoted to opium poppies in Afghanistan, even at the current record level of production, totals just 637 square miles, less than a third the size of Rhode Island.

Previous reason coverage of Afghan poppies and the drug warriors who hate them here and here.

NEXT: The Boy Who Cried Moment

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  1. You might as well also note that Afghanistan covers 251,772 square miles, to further give that number perspective.

  2. Former Governor Gary Johnson will speak at Ron Paul's counter-convention in Minneapolis, which will take place from August 31 to September 2.

    Hopefully Governor Johnson will deal with the issue of the drug war and how it undermines our war on terror.

  3. As soon as we eradicate the Afghan poppy crop the world will be rid of the drug scourge forever.

    I wish I could conceive of a "re-education" program for Mr. Schweich which did not involve putting him in the stocks and thrashing him with a bamboo stick.

    But I can't.

  4. Yet he never acknowledges that all these phenomena are consequences of drug prohibition, a policy the United States has insisted on exporting to other countries for nearly a century.

    I will never, ever, ever understand why supposedly intelligent people DO NOT FUCKING GET THIS!

    Never, not in an eon, will I understand why people can't grasp something so obvious. I ask folks, "when was the last time Miller brewing did a drive-by on Anheuser Busch?" and they just give me a blank stare and say, "What does that have to do with drugs?"

    It's a megasheesh I tell ya.

  5. He wants to eradicate poppies...

    The drug war is anti-biodiversity! Anti-environment! Save The Flowers: Legalize Drugs!

    (Would those slogans work to get at least the environmentalists on our side, do you think?)

  6. So, 90% of the world's opium is grown on 637 square miles of third world shitscape?
    (And some percentage of that crop never makes it to market, due to the valiant efforts of douche-bags like Schweich.)

    So every junkie in the world could be placated with just 700 square miles of land, anywhere in the world? And these brilliant drug warriors think there is some chance that they will one day end all production? It's beyond ludicrous. I mean, I know maff is hard and stuff, but this isn't differential calculus, folks. It ain't happenin', fucktards! Get a real job!

  7. 637 sections of land devoted to opium production? That's a little over 400,000 acres, a square about 25 miles on a side. I've been on three ranches that are bigger, that I can remember off the top of my head.

  8. Great post
    Great comments
    My head exploded three times.

  9. I wonder if ONDCP or DEA types ever lurk here. If they do, I hope it makes them feel stupid. It should.

  10. Hitchens offered an interesting idea a few years ago: encourage prescription drug makers to purchase the poppy growers' crops. I'm sure there are a number of reasons that this won't work, but the only one that comes to mind is that the heroin makers might pay more. However, I doubt that the farmers are really paid all that well. It's also possible that supply would outstrip demand. Given the amount of opiates produced by the pharmaceutical industry, I'm not sure that argument holds water. Perhaps it's a question of protectionism for whoever currently grows legal opium poppies. That makes the most sense.

    Can anyone explain to me why Hitchens' idea is a bad one? (Apart from the fact that Hitchens proposed it, that is.)

  11. #6,
    I wouldn't say it is bad per se, it just won't accomplish what he intends. It would essentially be a subsidy and as long as there is demand someone will fulfill it. So, maybe you can buy this years crop, which would encourage more production since it sold so easily and also the normal buyers WILL offer more money, which will encourage even more production. The cost gets passed onto end users, who perhaps cannot afford the good stuff and ends up with crap laced with impurities, which increases fatalities. No matter how much of the market they try to capture, it just encourages more production and does nothing to end demand.

    Now, if pharmaceutical companies were able to market to users, then it would work (better)

  12. Oh, right, maybe it is a bad idea if it will increase fatalities.

  13. The Drug War is a vast, stupid, tragic enterprise. But some parts are dumber than others. This is right up there with its most obscene indecencies.

    First of all, we have more important things to do in Afghanistan, like hunting Taliban. Or maybe even letting/helping the people rebuild their goddamn country. Second, there is a world-wide opioid shortage. Sick, suffering, dying people need opioids to relieve their pain. There isn't even the fig-leaf of an excuse--as there is with medical marijuana-- that it doesn't work. NO ONE disputes that opioids are an effective analgesic. Not even our stupid and evil government.

    Finally, if you want fewer people to use heroin, MAKE OPIUM LEGAL. People drink more light beer than Everclear, more wine than Georgia Moon. During Prohibition, people drank the hardest stuff they could get their hands on.

    Look, I can see an argument for keeping PCP illegal. Hell, I'm no huge fan of the crack rock.

    But for God's sakes, would someone PLEASE go ahead and legalize the opium?!? Poppies are such pretty flowers.

  14. Pharmacuetical companies would rather synthesize any poppy derivative for patented profit.And it is impossible to make any ONDCP/DEA dolt feel stupid.

  15. Look, I can see an argument for keeping PCP illegal.

    What would that be?

  16. Why would a drug warrior feel stupid? They are the only thing standing between your sorry, hippie ass and the giant mob of drug crazed lunatics that would take over the world like a zombie army, while setting their hair on fire, and jumping off of buildings, and stealing your grandmother's television, and smoking crack out of baby skulls, and using the Great American Flag as toilet paper, and defiling your daughter, and dancing the devil's dance, and saying treasonous things about His Royal Majesty President George, and voting for people with Hussein in their god-forsaken name!!! So think about that the next time you open your fool mouth!

  17. Afghanistan doesn't have much farmland. 637 square miles is about 7% of all irrigated land in the country.

  18. Drugs that are inherently dangerous should be ruled as such by the Consumer Product Safety Commision. That is enough to prevent the large retail distribution and over the counter acceptance that might lead to overuse and addiction by the unknowing consumer. (the reason they were outlawed during the Taft admin) Being ruled unsafe, large brick and mortar stores would be rare, given they would face lawsuits from consumers who are able prove injury.

    That is my entire scheme for replacing the drug war. It worked for lawn jarts and 3-wheelers (I had a 200S - lots o fun). By worked, I mean they are off the store shelves because being on the store shelf implies safety. You can still buy, make, or sell homebrew or old stock ATCS and lawn darts, but their use is reduced, nobody mistakeenly thinks they are perfectly safe, and no innocent people get killed or injured by thugs trying ot control a black market. Added bonus are renewed respect for the police since they are no longer doing harm to our society, far less money spent on housing prisoners, and a solid line drawn between legal and illegal activity that people will be less inclined to cross.

    OK, I think I've got that one solved. Moving on to world hunger...

  19. Look, I can see an argument for keeping PCP illegal.

    What would that be?

    Unlike most of the drugs about which we were lied to concerning their violence-inducing qualities, PCP fairly consistently causes dissociatve psychotic and violent outbursts in its users.

    But way worse than alcohol.

    I don't think it should be made illegal. I just think there's a teensy bit more grey area for discussion's sake for PCP than for, say, Marijuana.

  20. Drug prohibitionists may be suffering an intellectual disability.

  21. Drug prohibitionists may be suffering an intellectual disability.

    At the Drug Warrior Olympics, everybody gets a medal.

  22. "Can anyone explain to me why Hitchens' idea is a bad one? (Apart from the fact that Hitchens proposed it, that is.)"

    It is a good idea in that the legal opium production is a ran by a gov't approved cartel. That makes the price of Morphine & other opiates extremely expensive.

    I was in the hospital for 2 weeks once & was being given morphine & other opiate based pain killers. The pain killer portion of the hospital bill was close to ten thousand dollars. Talk about obscene profits when drug-traffickers purchase a kilo of opium in Afghanistan for $20 dollars.

  23. Anombebus- You make a good point. However, it seems to me that even moving a part of poppy production into the legal market (and, presumably out of channels that lead back to the Taliban), and allowing us to stop destroying the country's only cash crop, is a good idea.

  24. PCP fairly consistently causes dissociatve psychotic and violent outbursts in its users.

    So "they" told you the "truth" on that one?

    There is no libertarian case for outlawing drugs based on the perceived harm they cause. It is an issue of property rights.

    "They" lied to you bout dat PCP too. It isn't any "worse" than ketamine.Funny how those tales of imparting Negroes with super-human cop-killing strength linger around the illegal drugs.

  25. SIV: How exactly do you know they lied about PCP? Ever seen it manufactured? Ever seen the effects on someone who takes it? I have on both counts. I saw a guy that weighed around 140 lbs toss a full garbage can about 20 feet, that 3 of us could barely lift and we weren't small guys.

    Those videos of the animals getting violent, etc. are accurate and humans are the same type of animal.

    Ketamine is a different drug altogether though I'm sure your limited knowledge will make you think it is not. Unless you have first hand experience, you're not likely to trump me here.

    For instance, did you know that your body metabolizes 1/3 of the phencyclidine molecule and the other 2/3 remains in the brain? Or that after the first time you've done it, you require more because your tolerance goes through the roof thanks to that 2/3 hanging around in your grey matter?

    I know all this because one of my best friends got busted for it and I was a curious observer in its manufacture and use; he was the largest PCP bust this side of the Mississippi since the 1970's. So yeah, I have some clue.

  26. oh, yeah. I'm NOT for the War on Drugs but I do think some need regulation to some degree..PCP tops that list.

  27. Ketamine and PCP are both NMDA receptor antagonists.

    Tell me more that I don't know.

    Good to hear you aren't for the WoDs other than phencyclidine but that is not a position based on a libertarian philosophy.

  28. I saw a guy that weighed around 140 lbs toss a full garbage can about 20 feet, that 3 of us could barely lift and we weren't small guys.

    Garbage men can do that on nothing stronger than 2 16oz cans of Colt 45 for breakfast.

  29. someone-in-the-know,

    If someone commits a crime on PCP they should be punished for commiting a crime. Just because someone takes PCP doesn't make them evil or criminal just stupid.

  30. Hey, is that rumor about Lonewacko having been born in Oaxaca and then being smuggled into the US as an infant hidden in a basket of salmonella-tainted jalapenos true? I'm not sure myself, but I think he should produce a certified copy of his birth certificate to prove it!

  31. The US probably can't engage in both counterinsurgency and mercilessly crush opium production at the same time. Iraq has shown the limits of military power in this regard. Of course if this asshat thinks he knows better, then why not withdraw US and allied soldiers, and let the DEA handle Afghan ground operations all by themselves. They might be in for some culture shock when they find out these guys actually shoot back.

  32. The drug war is a fraud, and the DEA knows it. To wit:
    A former friend's relative was running a PCP lab, fronting as a paint factory, in Texas some years ago. State police raided his shop, arrested him, and released him the next day, after he introduced them to his customer. One customer, buying $1 million worth of PCP per month. The customer? The DEA!
    Now what do you suppose the DEA was doing with all that PCP? If you guessed selling it and then selectively busting whoever they damned pleased, while using the profit to buy weapons, toys and drugs for their own recreation, you'd probably be right.
    The Bush dynasty is at the top of the cocaine cartel (which is why GHWB took out Noriega - competition), and the Clintons are in it with them.
    Anything you outlaw becomes a profit center for the mob, and the mob ends up running the world. That's where we are now.

  33. I hope Reason sends a letter to the Times editors on this one summarizing Sullums points. I read that piece and felt exactly the same. It was a horrible piece of unreflective bureaucratic whinging about why no one except him seemed to believe that conflating the War on Terror and the War on Drugs was a helpful notion. He basically ignores the strategic and tactical goals and assumes that wiping out poppies in one place is somehow fundamentally a net positive no matter what the derivative effect.


  35. #6,
    I took the statement to mean that the pharmaceutical companies buy the product whether they needed it or not. Obviously if they can use it, they would be buying it anyway (or at least I would hope it is that obvious).
    My second paragraph was meant to give support to the idea of pharmaceutical companies being the source for all opiate consumption in the world, essentially making it at least a semi-legal commodity.

  36. but what can anyone do about it, it being the misallocation of funding and support of warrior/anti-drug wackos? They are making a good deal of money. The system of paper work may be too grid locked, and individuals' voices too stifled and rendered irrelevant for any useful changes to occur. People need to organize campaigns to counteract the ulterior motivated govt funded programs, but where is the money going to come from?! I figure people enjoy taking advantage of others' potentially powerless positions too much to ever be able to come down from it. The exploitation goes way back and is ingrained in us so many ways. It's bigger than the govt's crusade against users of marginal psychosomatic substances. To be the 'alpha' is fortuantely and unfortunately even less than the state of being of so-called animals.

  37. A more interesting question, one that Schweich never asks: Why is Afghanistan a narco-state?

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