Combating Afghanistan's Opium Problem Through Legalization

The illegal opium trade dominates Afghanistan's economy, enriching drug lords, corrupting officials and weakening the central government. Corey Flintoff looks at a plan that aims to remedy all these problems by licensing growers and making the trade legal.

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Among the toughest problems facing Afghanistan's new parliament is the burgeoning opium trade. Seven times more opium poppies are grown there now than when the Taliban fled four years ago. Opium from Afghanistan is now the raw material for much of the world's heroin, and the money for the trade is equal to half of Afghanistan's gross domestic product. The potential for opium dollars to corrupt the country's political process is huge experts say and could undermine efforts to build a strong central government. A European-based policy group is offering a solution to the opium problem: legalize it. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.

COREY FLINTOFF reporting:

Fields of opium poppies already bloom in Australia, France, India and Turkey. They're legal under a program monitored by the United Nations and the opium is harvested to make painkillers such as morphine and codeine. The Senlis Council says that most of Afghanistan's opium production could be diverted into legal channels, too, for less than the US is currently spending on efforts to eradicate the crop.

Mr. EMMANUEL REINERT (Senlis Council): The idea is, to put it simply, is to turn something bad into something good.

FLINTOFF: Emmanuel Reinert is the director of the Senlis Council, which recently completed a study suggesting that it would be feasible to take Afghanistan's opium out of criminal hands.

Mr. REINERT: The situation right now in Afghanistan with the illegal opium trade accounting for more than 50 percent of the economy is that it's not a narcotic problem, it's a development problem, and so it should be dealt with with economic tools.

FLINTOFF: Reinert says there's a huge untapped market for Afghanistan's opium in developing countries which currently have very little access to pain relief medicines of any kind. He says his proposal would help meet that need while stripping away the power of the drug lords and helping Afghanistan with legitimate development. So is that realistic?

Mr. DAVE MURRAY (Office of National Drug Control Policy): No, it's naive, and I think it's most likely gonna be the father of unintended consequences if it were to be pursued.

FLINTOFF: Dave Murray is an analyst with the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Mr. MURRAY: Our drug policies here are we need to push down the prevalence of drug use itself. That's the way to reduce harms.

FLINTOFF: Murray says that for one thing, legalizing some opium production in Afghanistan wouldn't stop the illegal harvest, much of which is turned into heroin for sale in neighboring countries, Russia and Europe. He also doubts that legal painkillers from Afghanistan's opium would find their way into impoverished parts of Africa and Asia. The problem is that there's very little health-care infrastructure in such places to safely deliver potent narcotics.

Mr. MURRAY: You can make all these things land at the dock, but they don't necessarily get distributed appropriately into the hands of the people who need them. That's the problem of the undertreatment of pain and the underdelivery of modern medications across the board in the rest of the world.

FLINTOFF: Murray's office recently reported that opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan was down 48 percent because some farmers opted not to grow the illegal flower. At the same time, though, Afghanistan had an unusually good growing season, so fewer farmers were able to produce nearly as much opium as last year. Paul Fishstein is an economist working for the non-profit Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit in Kabul. He says farmers who have stopped growing opium are falling into debt, and that's causing ripples throughout Afghanistan's economy.

Mr. PAUL FISHSTEIN (Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit): Decreases in demands for various goods and services, lavish weddings which have been reduced, the sale of motorcycles and even something like the number of cars being washed in a day has been reported to be reduced.

FLINTOFF: Fishstein says there's no alternative crop that comes anywhere close to producing the revenue that opium poppies do. At one point, Afghan government officials appeared to be open to the legalization proposal, but recently they've said it's too soon to consider given the instability of the country. For now, the Senlis Council is studying the possibility of launching a pilot program to test the feasibility of its plan. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Washington.

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