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Heroin capital of the world

April 22, 2010 - Jim Anderson
There will always be places in the world to plant opium poppy, but at the moment the heroin capital of the world is Afghanistan.

Thanks to decades of war, and no profitable alternatives, Afghanistan has produced what has been described as a global glut of heroin. That means lower prices and, in turn, more addicts and more ruined lives.

With opiate-based painkillers sometimes serving as a gateway to heroin, the scourge only grows.

Afghanistan now accounts for about 90 percent of the world’s heroin. As with many issues, there is disagreement about what to do.

Russia appealed last month to NATO to step up eradication efforts, citing 30,000 deaths blamed on heroin-related overdoses annually in that nation.

The Obama administration has shifted away from crop destruction, believing it alienates Afghan farmers and pushes them into the hands of the Taliban. The Washington Post reported recently that the Drug Enforcement Administration has 96 agents in Afghanistan. Seizures of drug shipments and arrests of drug lords are on the rise.

For this fall’s planting season, the administration plans to expand a crop substitution program by sending more agricultural and development specialists into Helmand Province, the heart of the poppy region.

How much good will it do?

The Russians, who want a dramatic increase in aerial spraying, complain that NATO has spent more than $1 billion on counternarcotics programs in Afghanistan since 2002 with little to show for it.

In the U.S., such visible figures as Fox’s Geraldo Rivera have floated the idea that the U.S. should take control of the poppy market in Afghanistan by buying the entire crop.

The logistics, however, may be more daunting than the price. Hundreds of thousands of acres are devoted to opium cultivation each year.

The proposed Russian solution, meanwhile, would mean pouring tons of toxic chemicals over Afghanistan’s agricultural land.

Afghanistan’s annual opium harvest rose from just 250 tons in 1979 to 8,200 tons in 2007. It was the Soviet invasion that helped launch the surge. With much of the nation’s irrigation systems in ruins, farmers sought out opium poppy as an alternative, since it consumes little water.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that Afghan opium production fell to 6,900 tons in 2009. (But, again, in 1979 it was just 250 tons.) The area dedicated to opium cultivation was reported as stable — nearly 300,000 acres.

At a drug conference in Kabul in March, the head of Russia’s Federal Narcotics Service estimated the value of Afghanistan's current opium crop at $65 billion, according to University of Wisconsin professor Alfred W. McCoy.

“Only $500 million of that vast sum goes to Afghanistan’s farmers, $300 million to the Taliban guerrillas, and the $64 billion balance ‘to the drug mafia,’ leaving ample funds to corrupt the Karzai government in a nation whose total GDP is only $10 billion,” McCoy wrote at

McCoy cautions against a quick fix.

“Rapid drug eradication without alternative employment, something the private contractor DynCorp tried so disastrously under a $150 million contract in 2005, would simply plunge Afghanistan into more misery, stoking mass anger and destabilizing the Kabul government further,” he writes.

McCoy urges rebuilding the Afghan countryside through countless small-scale projects until food crops become a viable alternative to opium.

If it’s true that only $500 million goes to the poppy farmers annually, could agricultural agents accomplish as much, if not more, per dollar than the military and the DEA?

Afghanistan is a narco-state. If our occupation is to succeed, it would seem the first step is to acknowledge that the drug trade begins in the poppy fields, not Kabul.

The cost to date for U.S. military actions in Afghanistan is more than $300 billion. In 2010, we may spend more than another $100 billion.

We are making a huge investment, in both money and lives, essentially to stabilize a narco-state. In the meantime, we are making a modest effort to fix the farms.

Perhaps we’d do better to flip the strategy.


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