Glad You Asked

Patrick Appel has a query:

How do you stop the drug trade in Afghanistan without destroying its economy?

Lack of expertise has never really deterred me from commenting on an issue, but my last college debate file covered drug legalization in Afghanistan, so I’m actually somewhat familiar with the relevant literature. The most prominent advocate of drug legalization is the International Council on Security and Development (formerly known as the Senlis Council – perhaps they changed their name because the Afghans kicked them out of the country?). They’ve proposed subsidizing a village-based poppy production program for licensed pain-relieving drugs like morphine and codeine, which is intended to provide a licit alternative for Afghan farmers that competes with the opium black market. According to the ICSD, there’s substantial demand for cheap pain-killing drugs throughout the developing world.

Ted Carpenter of the Cato Institute (h/t: Appel) recently suggested we simply ignore the illicit opium market, which strikes me as a bad idea, mainly because the Taliban insurgency relies on status quo opium production for revenue. Ending the eradication program would allow us to focus more resources on counter-insurgency, but implementing subsidized drug licensing has the potential to actually compete economically with the illicit opium trade, which would deny Afghan warlords access to drug profits. The United States has actually had some success with similar programs in Turkey and India in the 1970s:

There is an American precedent for buying. In the late 1960s, the Nixon administration, fighting a heroin epidemic, pressured Turkey, then the world’s chief grower, to eradicate its poppy crops.

Unable to do that (both because of corruption and because peasant farmers in Turkey can vote), Turkey started licensing farmers in 1974 to grow poppies for the morphine trade, and the United States gave protected-market status to Turkey and India in 1981, obligating itself to buy 80 percent of the raw material for American painkillers from them. Why not, the Senlis Council and others argue, let Afghanistan join the legitimate supply chain?

There are, of course, serious problems with any program that subsidizes poppy production. Many critics contend that the black market drug trade is simply too profitable to induce farmers to switch to licit production. Others argue that global demand for painkillers is insufficiently robust. Here’s the State Department’s comprehensive rebuttal to drug legalization advocates, and here’s an op-ed from the CS Monitor that makes a more concise case for continued eradication. Given the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and the failure of status quo drug enforcement, I think legalization is something that’s worth pursuing. The fact that we’ve already tried similar programs elsewhere also suggests that some reform may actually be politically palatable.

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Filed under Drug War, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Terrorism

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