Opium Production Is Down, and So Are Heroin Prices


This week the U.N. announced that opium production in Afghanistan is down 6 percent from last year's record level of 8,200 metric tons. The U.N. attributes the decline to drought and "good local leadership" aimed at encouraging poppy farmers to grow other crops. (Rising food prices have made alternatives such as wheat more economically attractive than they used to be, although farmers can still make a lot more money growing poppies.) Notably, Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, went out of his way to say eradication did not meaningfully contribute to the drop in opium production:

The zero percent cultivation in 18 provinces was not—and I stress, was not—due to eradication. Only a very small amount of land was eradicated, only 5,000 hectares at a very high human cost—77 people died, half of them civilian and half of them policemen—and also at a very high economic cost. We are therefore making a change towards our policy regarding eradication.

The number of "opium-free provinces" increased from 13 to 18, and the acreage devoted to poppies fell 19 percent. But the remaining farms are producing more per acre and are increasingly concentrated in Taliban-controlled areas. Meanwhile, many of the farmers who have stopped growing poppies are growing cannabis instead, which Costa does not consider a victory.

The impact on the heroin market is even less impressive:

For the third year in a row, opium supply far outweighs world demand. Prices are falling, but not dramatically. This suggests that vast amounts of opium, heroin and morphine have been withheld from the market.

Prices are falling, but not dramatically. That's quite an accomplishment. And we should not forget (as Costa clearly has) that even if drug warriors succeeded in eliminating every last poppy from Afghanistan after years of economy-disrupting, resentment-arousing, violence-provoking, insurgency-strengthening effort, opium simply would be produced somewhere else. That will be true as long as there is a demand for heroin.

Speaking of which, Emmanuel Reinert, executive director of the Paris-based Senlis Council, a nonprofit group specializing in security and development policy, correctly says the drop in production "is no more than a ripple in the ocean" and warns that the current policy is reinforcing the nexus between drugs and terrorism. But the Reinert's alternative, buying Afghan opium for use in legal painkillers, would not affect worldwide demand for heroin and therefore would not eliminate, or even shrink, the black market, although it might change the players. 

Last month I noted a frustrated drug warrior's attempt to pin the poppy flop on everyone else. My columns on the subject are here and here.

[via the Drug War Chronicle]