The Opium Standard


Next stop in our occasional series on commodities used as currencies around the world: Afghanistan! If you thought Robert Anton Wilson was being excessively satiric when he invented the idea of hempscrip, read this report from the Associated Press:

For as long as anyone can remember, there was no need for paper money in this remote corner of the Hindu Kush. The common currency was what grew in everyone's backyard—opium.

When children felt like buying candy, they ran into their father's fields and returned with a few grams of opium folded inside a leaf. Their mothers collected it in plastic bags, trading 18 grams for a meter of fabric or two liters of cooking oil. Even a visit to the barbershop could be settled in opium.

Such Norman Rockwell scenes are rare today. The AP informs us that "the economy of this village sputtered to a halt last year when the government began aggressively enforcing a ban on opium production. Villagers were not allowed to plant their only cash crop. Now shops are empty and farmers are in debt, as entire communities spiral into poverty." For the first time in my life, I'm associating prohibition with deflation.

(Drug currencies aren't actually unusual. An earlier entry in this series told the tale of a Colombian community where the currency is cocaine. Parts of colonial America used tobacco as money, and more recently prisoners have traded cigarettes when coins are scarce. And one reason the whiskey tax of the 1790s provoked a famous rebellion was because back-country farmers had been using spirits as a medium of exchange.)