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May 2007
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Where Poppies Bloom

Surprise, surprise.

Farmers in southern Iraq have started to grow opium poppies in their fields for the first time, sparking fears that Iraq might become a serious drugs producer along the lines of Afghanistan.
Rice farmers along the Euphrates, to the west of the city of Diwaniya, south of Baghdad, have stopped cultivating rice, for which the area is famous, and are instead planting poppies, Iraqi sources familiar with the area have told The Independent.

Well, here’s another surprise. USA Today has published an editorial supporting the Senlis proposal: A Better Way To Deal With Afghanistan’s Poppy Crop

The United States is pushing Afghanistan to spray poppy fields with a crop-killing herbicide, much as is done with coca in Colombia, and develop new sources of income for the poppy farmers.
This approach might sound reasonable, but it threatens to make a deteriorating situation even worse. Here’s why. The American and NATO forces in Afghanistan rely on intelligence and support from Afghans. Yet the Afghans’ resentment is rising as civilians increasingly get killed and hurt in operations against Taliban forces. Just the threat of spraying poppy fields is increasing that anger, because spraying could destroy the livelihoods of as many as 3 million farmers and drive them into the arms of the Taliban.
There might be a better way to bridge the clashing agendas of the wars on terror and drugs.
The Senlis Council, a group based in Europe and Afghanistan, proposes legalizing and managing the poppy crops, turning them into medicines such as morphine. It wants to adapt a program that largely eliminated heroin production in Turkey in the 1970s with the support of President Nixon and Congress.
Like the Bush administration in Afghanistan, Nixon at first insisted on spraying the poppy fields. But Turkish leaders refused because of a revolt from their farmers. The compromise included guaranteed markets for the morphine. Within a few years, Turkey was no longer the premier source for heroin.
The Senlis Council is proposing pilot projects under which the morphine factories would be set up in Afghan villages and monitored by village elders and outside groups. The factories could provide employment and income for the villages — and plow some profits into alternative industries.
It’s true, as critics point out, that legal opium fetches about one-third the price of opium sold on the illegal market, and the Senlis proposal envisions Afghan opium being sold relatively cheaply for medications in developing countries.
But the United States and the international community are already spending billions of dollars on development in Afghanistan. Some of that money could be used to help bridge the gap and wean the poppy farmers away from risky, illegal production.
Defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan will require pragmatism, creativity and the support of the Afghan people. Giving “poppies for peace” a chance might just pay dividends in the U.S. war on terror.

Not bad from USA Today. And note that while legal uses will bring in significantly less income than illegal uses, there are two factors to the farmers.

  1. In the illegal market, farmers get a very small portion of the value of the opium when it is shipped, which itself is an insignificant portion of the street value of the finished drug, so the value difference to farmers in selling to the legitimate market may not be that great (and will at least appeal to those who would like to be legal).
  2. Buying crops from farmers at even a low price so they can feed their families is better in winning hearts and minds than destroying their crops and leaving them to starve.

Of course, the Senlis proposal will not eliminate the black market — only full legalization and regulation can do that.

[Thanks, Jeff]

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