Heroin Staying in Afghanistan
> 10/18/2007 2:35:24 PM

The skin of the poppy plant must be scored by a blade and left to bleed sap before opium can be harvested from the wound. The people of Afghanistan, which produces more than 90% of the world’s opium, are all too familiar with this process. When the Soviet Union sliced their country to ribbons in the 1980 invasion, opium seeped through the cracks. With neither invader nor central government able to keep control, local warlords established bases of power utilizing opium funding. The more recent United States invasion has left similar wounds and a resurgence of the narcotic economy. This time, the drugs are not only being exported— Afghanis with too little money to buy food are getting addicted to their own country’s poisonous product.

Reuters reporter Hamid Shalizi returned this week from an investigation of drug use in Afghanistan, and his description of the situation there is dismaying. He describes men begging on the streets for money to feed their addiction. The cultural center built in Kabul in a brief moment of optimism now houses more than a hundred squatters who only drag themselves out to the market to unload trucks for drug money. Shalizi’s observations are not just anecdotal; the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) reports that 4% of the population is addicted to a drug, estimating that there are 150,000 opium addicts and 50,000 heroin addicts. There have always been addicts as well as exporters in Afghanistan, but the number of addicts is now so high because of social chaos and a change in the way drugs are manufactured. Afghani warlords realized that they were losing out on a lot of the money made from drug refining. No longer content to export raw opium and let cartels in other countries profit by refining it into other drugs like heroin, warlords are doing the work in their own country. Christina Oguz, a representative for UNODC, described the changes to the country in striking imagery to sharpen abstract statistics : [When you fly over the country, you ] “see a lot of small fires in the mountains. These are heroin labs." This processing at home brings more potent drugs closer to citizens struggling daily with violence and depression, and the result is tragically predictable.

There are four basic approaches to dealing with the drug problem in Afghanistan. The first two of these approaches, reducing foreign demand for drugs and treating addiction, are methods to which we can give our unequivocal support. The second and third approaches, crackdown and legalization, are mutually exclusive and do not yield any easy answers upon analysis.

Reducing demand and treating addiction are effective, but may not be the methods that solve the problem because they require difficult work from our citizens. Americans consume a gigantic portion of the world’s drugs, and it is their insatiable demand and massive wealth that drive the price of opium so high that few Afghani farmers can resist the temptation. While the war on drugs in America may be impossible to win, it is possible to increase the amount of foreign aid given to Afghanistan. Previously, we reported on the deplorable lack of psychiatric facilities in Afghanistan, and the state of drug rehabilitation clinics there is little better. While few, there are some shining examples of successful clinics there that hint at what could be possible with more money. In May, the third Nejat (Salvation) Center opened in Faizabad . Funding from the United Kingdom has allowed the Nejat Center to counsel 500 addicts so far, but the facilities are simply not capable of directly rehabilitating enough patients. The new center in Faizabad has only 10 beds, and with each detoxification taking as long as a month, these beds can hardly be expected to make a significant impact on a 200,000 person problem.

The last two approaches to consider are legalization or intensified attack. The Senlis Council, an international think-tank, recently came out with a controversial report entitled “Poppy for Medicine”. This report lays out a plan to legalize poppy production so that it can be regulated and directed into medical markets instead of black markets. There is a large legitimate market for pain medication, especially in Afghanistan where a large number of wounded citizens still linger in anguish. The U.S. Department of State is strongly opposed to this idea. The Department of State published its own report in response to the Senlis suggestion, wherein it refutes each argument for legalization. Chief among the problems with legalization that the Department of State cites are the idea that enticements can be large enough to convince farmers to switch from illegal to legal production, and the idea that there is enough demand for legal pain medication that all farmers could continue working. Their contention is that the black-market is so much more profitable than any legal production that it would be unfeasible to try and bribe farmers into switching. As for the idea that the market for pain medication requires more supply , the Department of State cites the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board’s statement that world supply is sufficient. 

Legalization is a complex issue that will require detailed analysis of each argument for and against the practicality of diverting narcotic production into pain medication. While we wait for this additional research, we can still work on the first two approaches for reducing the problem in Afghanistan. Reducing the world’s demand for illegal opium and sending more doctors and more money to help Afghani addicts will bring us closer to stabilizing the country.

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