Opium Trade and Drug Legalization in Afghanistan
The persuasive commentary piece by Thomas Schweich in the Globe and Mail last week got a lot of attention in Canada’s World circles. Most people who pointed it out to me focused on fears it raised that Obama might not be all he’s cracked up to be (“What?! You mean he won’t be solving the global drug trade while he turns water into wine?”) but what really fascinated me about it was Schweich’s argument that the war on drugs can work. His argument in a few points is:
- There are signs we can eliminate poppy cultivation in Afghanistan (i.e. production fell 18% last year.)
- We can eliminate it through a combination of carrots and sticks.
- Civilians (i.e. foreign service people) need to play a major role in designing and implementing anti-drug strategy in Afghanistan, because the military often favours simplistic solutions (like legalization).
- Richard Holbrooke and Lieutenant-General Karl Eikenberry are wrong about pretty much everything related to opium and Afghanistan.
- It’s not clear who will really determine policy on Afghanistan for the Obama administration, and Obama is giving too much control to the military. And if Holbrooke and Eikenberry get to determine policy then we’re all screwed.
His arguments about 3, 4 and 5 seem fairly strong to me – I bought them, though someone with the right counterargument could easily persuade me that Richard Holbrooke is in fact St. Peter (wait, I guess that’s Rahm Emanuel – Holbrooke can be St. Mark). It’s point 1 and 2 that I had trouble with.
To be fair, I might be misrepresenting Schweich’s argument a little by calling it “the war on drugs” – he emphasizes the need for lots of carrots (access-to-market subsidies, microcredit loans etc) and for civilians to lead the effort. And he doesn’t seem to be in favour of any more radical Plan-Colombia-style moves like aerial spraying (thank goodness – this is about the only suggested response to the opium trade that I know I am 100% against). But he’s also definitely in favour of keeping many of the sticks instead of trying out a more radical alternative – legalization.
He gives a few reasons why legalization (specifically à la the Senlis Council’s idea of buying up the crop, not legalization more broadly) won’t work. Here they are, followed by my own thoughts on why these reasons aren’t a persuasive case against legalization writ large:
1. Legal drugs would still be less lucrative than illegal ones, so the black market would continute to exist (Yes that’s true – if you only legalized the Afghan crop. A successful global campaign for legalization could solve that problem of a bifurcated legal/illegal market)
2. Afghans need to grow food, not drugs (If the drug trade were legalized poppies would probably be a lot less lucrative than pomegranates [or better yet, wheat].)
3. The anecdotal argument, as follows:
I have visited with many drug addicts and never once found one who wanted to legalize all drugs. As one of them put it, “Do everything you can to keep this miserable crap away from me.”
(Beware the anecdotal argument – I can give many examples of addicts [and people who work closely with them] that do think the trade should be legalized. This argument is based on an unstated assumption – that drugs not being legal actually keeps them away from people. From what I’ve seen, the war on drugs just creates a situation where the process of acquiring and using drugs further marginalizes addicts, making it even more difficult for them to quit.)
I do think Schweich is a humane and passionate advocate for a very important cause, and that he has a sophisticated understanding of drug policy and the situation in Afghanistan. He makes it clear that he doesn’t think we should just throw addicts in jail. And perhaps he has more persuasive arguments against legalization – but they weren’t there in his Globe and Mail piece and Q&A.