Drug Warriors Cross Their Fingers and Hope for Bad Weather in Afghanistan


This week the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime reported that the amount of land devoted to opium poppies in Afghanistan this year will be about the same as last year. Still, UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa said, "there is a good chance that Afghanistan will produce less opium this year," thanks to the hard work and persistence of government officials who for years have been eradicating poppies and encouraging farmers to switch crops. Just kidding. Costa actually is counting on bad weather:

Bad weather during the current growing season may reduce the productivity of the crop this year and thus volume (tons) of opium produced in the country. This would continue the decline that has seen production fall from a massive 8,200 tons in 2007 to 6,900 tons last year.

If you're thinking that 6,900 tons still sounds pretty massive, you're right. It is, for example, 3,600 percent higher than Afghan opium production at the time of the American invasion in 2001. More to the point, it is substantially higher than annual worldwide consumption of illicit opium (mostly in the form of heroin), which is believed to be about 5,000 tons. Another 10 percent drop in production like the one seen between 2008 and 2009 would still leave plenty of opium to satisfy the demand, even leaving aside the surpluses stockpiled in past years. Yet Costa is upbeat:

I urge the Afghan government and the international community to focus special attention on the eight provinces where opium cultivation is negligible, though not poppy-free. With appropriate local community-inspired measures—such as shura-driven campaigns, governor-led eradication and development assistance— three quarters of the country (25 out of 34 provinces) could become poppy-free in the near future.

It's hard to know which is more absurd: the idea that the utterly corrupt Afghan goverment would do anything to seriously interfere with the illegal drug trade that enriches its officials, or the notion that eliminating "negligible" poppy cultivation in those particular provinces would have any meaningful effect. It is easy to forget, while examining the U.N.'s tables and maps showing poppy cultivation by province, that the ultimate goal of the anti-opium campaign is to stop people from using heroin. There is no sign that it has been effective at doing so. Even if drug warriors somehow managed to turn the entire map of Afghanistan a "poppy- free" green, opium would be grown elsewhere as long as people wanted it.

Basic economics renders the whole enterprise not only futile but self-defeating. The UNODC considers it a promising sign when the price of opium drops relative to those of other crops, because it means farmers are less likely to grow poppies. But unless demand is dropping (which it isn't), falling opium prices show that drug warriors have failed to reduce supply. And if they should have any short-term success on that score, the result will be higher prices, which will lure farmers back to poppies again. Yet Costa, despite his training in economics, always acts as if success is just around the corner.

The full text of the U.N. report is here (PDF). Previous coverage of the ever-failing war against Afghan opium here.

[via the Drug War Chronicle]