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Opium Trade and Drug Legalization in Afghanistan

February 24, 2009

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:

  1. There are signs we can eliminate poppy cultivation in Afghanistan (i.e. production fell 18% last year.)
  2. We can eliminate it through a combination of carrots and sticks.
  3. 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).
  4. Richard Holbrooke and Lieutenant-General Karl Eikenberry are wrong about pretty much everything related to opium and Afghanistan.
  5. 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.

Opium poppy field in Afghanistan, by Fieldmedic

Opium poppy field in Afghanistan, by Fieldmedic

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.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 11, 2010 3:19 am

    I wrote a similar article on this subject but you nailed it here.

  2. March 3, 2009 6:06 pm

    Dan Gardiner on legalization in the Ottawa Citizen:

    “Today, the world is not drug free. In fact, drug production is greater than ever, distribution is wider, and prices lower. The conclusion could not be clearer: Drug prohibition is the most futile public policy since the Persian emperor Xerxes ordered the Hellespont — the narrow strait separating Europe and Asia Minor — to be whipped.”

    http://www.ottawacitizen.com/news/tough+gang+violence+Legalize+drugs/1338813/story.html

  3. corsullivan permalink*
    February 26, 2009 12:45 pm

    Schweich’s article is certainly a good starting point for discussion, but I thought it was too flavoured with “war on drugs” moralism to be entirely convincing. I would agree that heroin is very nasty stuff, and to a lesser extent I suppose this is true of opium as well. However, we still need to be clear about our reasons for treating poppy cultivation in Afghanistan as a problem, and I think there are four possible ones:

    1. Domestic use of opium/heroin will have detrimental effects on Afghan society.
    2. Use of exported opium/heroin will have detrimental effects on society in other countries.
    3. Poppy cultivation may crowd out other, more worthwhile types of agriculture (i.e. growing food).
    4. Revenues from opium/heroin sales help to fund the Taliban, and other anti-government groups.

    The important thing about this list, in my opinion, is that only point (4) stands out as directly relevant to Canada’s mission in Afghanistan. The other three points are medium-term or long-term problems, and point (1) is primarily a matter for the Afghans themselves in any case. Depriving the Taliban of support, on the other hand, is a critical short-term priority for Afghanistan, Canada, and our NATO allies.

    Accordingly, I would argue that we should aggressively pursue opium growers who are linked to the Taliban and other insurgents, and either turn a blind eye to the rest or go ahead and buy their crop for medical purposes as the Senlis council suggested. Of course, differentiating between Taliban and non-Taliban poppy-growing operations might prove difficult, but I think the best strategy would be to use Schweich’s “sticks” only when there’s clear evidence of Taliban involvement.

  4. reneethewriter permalink
    February 26, 2009 10:56 am

    Thank you, Reilly, for this post – your “drill-down” into the arguments put forward by Schweich – thought-provoking. The criticism of Holbrooke & Eikenberry, very much interest me.

    p.s. Rahm as iconography – made me laugh.

    But the opium trade in Afghanistan – everything about it – history, economics, cultural impact – no laughing matter.

    I’ve been mulling all these things…would like to see more economic analysis as in “following the money trail”…R

  5. February 25, 2009 11:02 am

    Legalization is a trap. I’m so tired of arguing against it on so many forums that I literally can’t muster the care to raise my very valid points once more.

    I will say that your argument for global legalization is pretty fallacious. There’s no evidence that this would solve anything.

    It’s not just the legal status of drugs that marginalizes addicts. It’s a complex patchwork of issues that legalization won’t fix. Drug addicts are often user because of other issues in their lives. If we address these other issues (such as broken, abusive families – the biggest societal marginalizer in the world), drug use will go down.

    Drug use is not healthy or desireable behavior and like our policy efforts to limit alcohol and tobacco consumption, I think we should have policies that actively discourage the consumption of drugs. Legalization, in that context, seems like a step in the wrong direction.

    • February 25, 2009 11:12 am

      hi aaron,

      thank you for commenting. i’m actually not trying to argue in favour of legalization, only to point out that schwiech’s arguments against it aren’t very compelling. it really did jump out at me that he didn’t seriously take on the arguments for this alternative to what is a very, very messy and protracted war. and i wasn’t at all convinced by his suggestion that the end is in sight if we just stay the course.

      this is probably a bit of intellectual laziness on my part, since it’s much easier to counter his arguments than take time to craft some of my own. but i’m not %100 in favour of legalization of heroine either – i’m torn. i haven’t heard entirely persuasive arguments on either side, and i was disappointed that schweich didn’t offer any in an article that was recommended to me by many people. i thought his takedown of obama was pretty effective though, and would love to read more from him on how he thinks the war on drugs can actually work.

      • February 25, 2009 11:14 am

        I’m sorry. I misinterpreted. Legalization is such an oft bandied about argument that that it tends to set me off.

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