The Debate Over Opiate Medication Production in Afghanistan

Last year the Senlis Council (SC) published a report stressing the importance of legalization and licensing for poppy growing in Afghanistan. According to the report, the licensing would better regulate and direct the sale of these opium-based products to where they are most needed, opiate medicines. A recent article in the British Medical Journal has called into question this line of thinking, but the topic is still a very hot debate.

Afghanistan accounts for more than 90% of the worlds opium production. Afghanistan opium production has seen a dramatic rise in the last seven years, where more than 20 times more land is now cultivating opium than in 2001. The total production of opium in Afghanistan has increased by 49% since 2006. Prior to Afghanistan’s dominance in the trade, Myanmar (Burma), and surrounding countries making up the famous ‘Golden Triangle” (Laos and Thailand), produced almost all of the worlds opium. This Golden Triangle product is what lead to the 19th century opium wars.

The opium plant is most recognized in modern society for being the progenitor of the dangerous and addictive narcotic, heroine. It has numerous medical uses though. The opium poppy consists of various alkaloids, two of the most prominent being morphine and codeine. While morphine is the base for heroine production, it is also very useful in the development of strong prescription pain medications. Codeine is weaker than morphine, but can be helpful in treating pain and rheumatism, and can often be purchased over the counter.

The world production of opiate medicines is well below the worlds growing need, while much of the opium poppy is used to make illegal narcotics like heroine. According to the SC report, “80% of the world’s population consumes only 5% of these drugs [opiate medications],” meaning that due to the low world production, only richer countries can purchase and administer opiate medications, leaving the poorer countries of the world without much needed pain medications.

According to last years Senlis Council report, efforts have been made since the opium boom in Afghanistan to eradicate opium crops, with virtually no progress being made. The SC believes that Afghan farmers look to the Taliban and the “black market,’ to sell their product, which inevitably becomes illegal narcotics, such as heroine. Because of this, the SC believes it should be the goal of “NATO and the Afghan government to license poppy cultivation for the production of opiate medicines.”

Besides detracting from the production of illegal opiates, and further contributing to the world market of opiate medicines, according the the SC report, licensing would avoid the need for crop gassing. This crop gassing that is part of the opium eradication effort puts already very poor farmers in positions where they have no means to feed their families. Norine Macdonald, president of the SC, says ‘There should be no crop eradication, manual or chemical, until the poverty stricken farmers have other means to feed their families.”

The main point of the SC report was their “poppy for medicine” initiative, “which calls for the crop to be transformed into morphine in the communities where it is grown, for sale on the international market.” India is used as an example of what the SC hopes to accomplish in Afghanistan. “morphine is far cheaper in India—where it is made from legally grown local poppies—than it is in developing countries that must import the drug.”

It is noted in the SC report that India’s legal production has been scaled back because “as much as 20% were being diverted to the illicit market. But in Afghanistan the rate of diversion is 100%.” Regardless of the soundness of the SC proposal, some major criticisms to their plan have recently been made by Mark Malloch-Brown, minister of state for Africa, Asia, and the UN.

Malloch-Brown concludes that “the Afghan government lacks the necessary resources, institutional capacity, and control mechanisms to guarantee that opium is only purchased legally. Those cultivating and purchasing opium for medical usage would be in direct competition with illegal traffickers, which could drive up the price of opium and encourage increased cultivation. Farmers who do not currently grow poppies would abandon legal crops to meet the market’s demand. Ultimately, the area of land under poppy cultivation could increase. Quite simply, farmers would grow more to supply an additional purchaser.”

Malloch-Brown believes that the legalized production of opium should remain based in countries like India, Turkey and Australia, ‘These countries have far greater security, stability, and government capacity. With opium production up to six times cheaper in these countries than in Afghanistan, supply is more economically viable too,” according to Malloch-Brown. Though Malloch-Brown acknowledges the ineffectiveness of forced eradication, he believes that only by “reducing demand on the streets everywhere will the producers and traffickers on the streets of Afghanistan be given the best reason to follow their alternative livelihoods.”

Given Afghanistan’s prominent stature in opium production, the need for more and cheaper opiate medications, and the danger of illegal opiate narcotics like heroine, the above debate is of primary importance. A volatile country such as Afghanistan, with little security and ability for regulation, is a dangerous place to be producing such a large majority of a both valuable and dangerous plant. Hopefully a middle ground can be found that best solves the problem, as hoping for the world to stop wanting illicit narcotics (Malloch-Brown’s desire), and legalizing and controlling its production in a place like Afghanistan (the SC desire), both seem fairly unrealistic.

Source: Defeat Diabetes Foundation: Dyer, Owen. BMJ. “Afghan farmers should be licensed to grow poppies for morphine, Senlis Council says.” June 2007. Malloch-Brown, Mark. BMJ. “Opium production in Afghanistan.” May 2008

Comments are closed.