Thursday, March 17, 2005

Opium - Buy it and Burn it

The export value of the crop to Afghanistan is around $2.8 billion, approximately 60% of the gross domestic product of the country. For individual growers it brings high, quick rewards: opium yields a gross income of about $2,000 per acre ($800 per hectare) – about twelve times as much as the income from wheat growing. This and the highly dispersed pattern of production suggest that the industry could only be halted by the provision of profitable alternative work (backed perhaps by subsidies) to small farmers. - Paul Rogers

$2.8 billion? And how much does that translate into in terms of Western drug addiction, with its train of burglaries, crime, devastated lives, illness, neglected children, medical, police and legal costs? Not to mention the costs of terrorism, since the terrorists benefit from drug profits.

It would be a simple matter for the industrialised nations to form a collective and but up the opium crop from the farmers, outbidding the warlords. At 12 times the cost of Afghani wheat, the cost is negligible. Once the collective of nations had bought it, they could then burn it on the spot. After a few years, they could gradually enable the transition of the farmers to legitimate crops. Purchase would give us control of the situation.

When I put this to the US embassy in London a few years ago, the only objection they could come up with was that some of it might leak back onto the black market through corruption. The perfectionist objection. So? At least we control most of the crop.

Are there any other objections to dealing in this reasonable and non-violent way with the horrendous opium problem?


Robert said...

Purchasing the crop and then destroying it would have a couple of effects.

The first effect is, the price of other opiates (heroin, probably) would rise, as the Afghan supply was mostly not making it to market. This would increase the income of Asian drug gangs, both there and in the West.

The second effect is, that more farmers would get into the opium market, which would now have a more stable price and would no longer depend on demand. Since the Western buyers would not care about quality, growers would put poppy plants in ever conceivable location, probably driving out subsistence agriculture.

So, this idea would end up making the tongs stronger and Afghans less able to feed themselves. Sorry to be a downer on your idea; it's creative.

DocRichard said...


Thank you for commenting. Allow me to continue playing with this idea. (I can anyway, because this is my blog)

OK then, let us make the buy-up policy world-wide, not just restricted to Afghanistan. That would overcome the problem of the competition moving in to plug the gap.

Would more farmers move in to opium production? Yes, probably. And some of their stuff would leak out to the drug traffickers, and find its way over here, because no system is perfect. Maybe the legislation could cover existing farmers on a register, and could exclude newcomers not on the register. There is a limit to the land suitable for poppy cultivation.

However, the fact would remain that the vast majority of the poppy crop would be going up in (incinerator) smoke, and would not be getting back here, except in small quantities and at high price. The Western addicts would have to go into rehab, destroying the consumer base that has built up over decades, the drug traffickers would have to go find other lines of business (which would in turn lead to internecine strife as they moved onto others' territory - would this be bad or good thing?). Terrorists would be deprived of a source of income - and this at a time when the arms trade has taken a dip due to attention being paid to ammunition ( ) ( warming to my theme here).

So - widespread addiction overcome, criminals deprived of a line, terrorists funding sources collapse, all good stuff, but at the cost of the world community now acting as monopoly purchaser of the world opium crop, at inflated prices. Some of it could be sold on as a feedstock for the legitimate pharmaceutical industry. Maybe all of it could be used in this way, using the opium molecule as a basic building block of many new and existing drugs. Maybe, maybe not. The incinerators could be used for electricity and heat production. What then? Well, as we know from supermarkets that to be a monopoly buyer is to exert control on the producer. Over the years, we could mould the farmers' practices. For instance, we could say the farmers only get the full price if they can show they are growing foodstuffs also, so gradually moving back to a more normal production. The wealth of the ex-opium farmers would need to be applied carefully, in a way that builds the community, and educates them about the ethical aspects of opium trade.

A similar measure would have to be taken with the coca trade.

I agree, to invade a market in this way does lead to awkward consequences. However, if the alternative is to stick with
what we have, with a useless, bloody "War on Drugs" which benefits nobody except bullet manufacturers, which alienates the farming community, driving them into the power of criminals and terrorists, with the product still reaching our streets, with all the effect in terms of morbidity and mortality, burglary and crime, then I would say - let's live with the awkward consequences of intervening in a market.

The other alternative, of course, is to let the market flourish, and legalise the taking of opium products. Much simpler. There is a case to be made for this, but I am not the one making it. I've got enough on my hands.

Thanks again for commenting