If Britons want to stop Afghans growing poppies they must stop using heroin

I had meant to write about the opening of the new bridge on the River Panj, with specific regard to its position as facilitating the trade in drugs more than the trade in just about anything else. Look forward to US forces bombing it to hell for exactly that reason, a year from now.

A friend just put me onto a recent Free Comment (after the fashion) on the Guardian’s website:

Britain is stoned at home and sold out in Helmand

The vast increase in opium poppy farming in Afghanistan is indicative of an inability to grasp a basic law of economics

The British government for sure knows how to do one thing. It knows how to help farmers in need. Since it arrived in Afghanistan in 2001 and was put in charge of the staple poppy crop, ministers have spent hundreds of millions of pounds on promoting it. On Monday the United Nations announced the result. Poppy production in Afghanistan has soared since the invasion, this year alone by 34%. The harvest in the British-occupied protectorate of Helmand rose by 50% in 12 months. This is a dazzling triumph for agricultural intervention.

Every schoolchild economist knows demand will always attract supply. If the government wants to restrict demand for heroin in Britain, it could do so by making it more expensive. This was the covert rationale for the spectacularly failed poppy eradication policy of 2001. But impoverishing local Afghan farmers, processors and traders, who receive a tiny proportion of the eventual street price, will not achieve this any more than it has done already.

The article also discusses, briefly, the plan as great as it was laughably never going to happen with the politicians at all of our helms: buy out poppy farmers. Nationalise the drug trade, so to speak, then shut it down.

The visionary proposal of the Senlis Council thinktank, to buy the entire Afghan poppy crop, which some have been pushing for five years, must now be rated close to hopeless. The hope is that the UN could use the opium to meet a world shortage of morphine, in the same way as the Turkish and Indian crops are bought at present. The Afghans would thus get a fair and legal return for what they produce so successfully.

After the invasion in 2001, poppy production was minimal and bulk purchase might have been worth a try. But the US privately allowed anti-Taliban warlords to start replanting and the proposal is now pie in the sky. To buy the whole crop would be wildly expensive and logistically close to impossible. Without curbing demand, stemming one supply route would merely increase price and stimulate substitute supply from elsewhere.

If you’ve the time and inclination, it’s worth a short while wandering around the website and publications of the Senlis Council. They’ve written not a small amount on what we could learn from narcotic production, over the years – Lord knows the clearly-drug-inspired Scorched Earth/War On Drugs approach has yet ever to prove useful for more than the odd Tom Clancy novel.

UPDATE! Today’s Guardian is running an article addressing various solutions to the problem. It’s interesting enough.

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