Record Opium Poppy Acreage Means Victory Is Just Around the Corner (As Usual)



According to a report released yesterday by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the amount of land devoted to opium poppies in Afghanistan reached an all-time high this year: 209,000 hectares, up 36 percent from last year and 8 percent higher than the previous record, set in 2007. The good news, according to the UNODC: "Unfavourable weather conditions, particularly in the Western and Southern regions of the country, meant that the 2013 opium yield was adversely affected," so that estimated opium production, while 49 percent higher than last year, was still lower than the 2007 record. Once again, drug warriors' most effective tactic in Afghanistan, which produces about 90 percent of the raw material for the world's heroin, seems to be praying for bad weather.

Although it could have been higher with better weather, the 2013 production level, 5,500 tons, was more than enough to satisfy the annual global demand for illicit opium, which is estimated to be something like 5,000 tons. Production has exceeded that level in five of the last 10 years. So even if the weather gets really bad, drug traffickers willl have a stockpile on which to draw. After opium production fell to a measly 185 tons in 2001 under the Taliban (who simultaneously cracked down on and profited from the trade), heroin did not disappear from the streets.

Even less meaningful is the official number of "poppy-free" provinces, which fell from 17 to 15 (out of 34) this year. But let us note for the record that most of Afghanistan's provinces are once again producing opium. The farm-gate price for opium fell by 12 percent, the sort of change you might expect as production expands, although it is still "much higher than the prices fetched during the high yield years of 2006-2008." Hence the returns "continued to lure farmers."

That reality reflects a basic problem with the never-ending, always-failing strategy of preventing drug use by attacking supply. Although the UNODC seems to have forgotten, the whole point of eradicating poppies and seizing opium is to drive up prices and thereby discourage heroin consumption. But to the extent that drug warriors succeed in raising prices, they make the business of growing poppies and producing opium more appealing, thereby defeating themselves. As you may vaguely recall from an economics course in college, higher prices stimulate an increased supply, which drives prices down again. Even in the heroin market. In the last decade, as opium seizures skyrocketed, heroin purity rose and heroin prices fell.

But there's always next year! Back in 1997, Pino Arlacchi, the first director of the U.N. Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention, which later became the UNODC, explained that "global coca leaf and opium poppy acreage totals an area less than half the size of Puerto Rico," so "there is no reason it cannot be eliminated." Four years ago, UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa declared: "It is no longer sufficient to say: no to drugs. We have to state an equally vehement: no to crime." Yesterday Costa's successor, Yury Fedotov, called the 2013 cultivation figures "sobering," but he also had a solution: "What is needed is an integrated, comprehensive response to the drug problem. Counter-narcotics efforts must be an integral part of the security, development and institution-building agenda."

Drug warriors are becoming so sophisticated that pretty soon we will have no idea what their goals are, and neither will they. Then they can declare victory without fear of contradiction.