Sunday, April 06, 2008

Rudd goes the wrong way on opium

Australian PM Kevin Rudd has failed in his bid to get NATO support for a firm timetable on his Afghan opium eradication strategy. Rudd had called for benchmarking at next year’s summit for the eradication of Afghanistan’s $4 billion opium crop but NATO has not agreed to his timing. At the Bucharest summit NATO had pledged to "continue to support Afghan-led efforts to tackle the narcotics problem". Rudd wanted a more specific outcome and said Britain had backed his call for the elimination strategy to be subjected to annual performance measures analysed each year. During the debate Rudd said that if efforts to reduce opium were not to be subject to measurement, "then I will have something further to say on that".

Rudd will now have his chance to say more as the European NATO leaders rebuffed his specific timetable. The Sydney Morning Herald accuses Rudd of “opiaphobia” and says Rudd should concentrate on “bigger issues”. The SMH defines opiaphobia as the irrational fear of opiate drugs particularly favoured by US politicians, and attributes the term to John Morgan, a professor of pharmacology at the City University of New York. US efforts to reduce the crop have been ineffective and opium production has increased 30 per cent in last 12 months. Opium accounts for half of Afghanistan’s $6 billion GDP and the country produces 93 percent of the world’s opium.

The opium crop had almost eliminated under the rule of the Taliban. But corruption in the post 9/11 administration and the distraction of the continued fighting has seen it come back with a vengeance. About half of the crop is grown in Uruzgan province, where Australia has its troops. Much of Uruzgan is classified by the United Nations as “Extreme Risk / Hostile Environment.” The Taliban effectively controls four-fifths of the province. There the Taliban has now done an about-turn on poppy growing and imposes a 25 per cent tax on the estimated US$1 billion earned by farmers to finance their military campaign.

Because of the dangers on the ground, the US is advocating aerial spraying from the air using chemicals to kill the crop. Washington is now pressuring the Afghan government to agree to aerial spraying of opium crops with the weedkiller glyphosate. But this is no smart bombing exercise. Glyphosate destroys all crops and leaves two million farmers without income. Harvard professor Robert Rotberg says the US is hell-bent on eradication regardless of its disastrous consequences elsewhere. “They claim it worked in Colombia and so will work in Afghanistan,” he said “It is not clear to anyone it worked in Colombia.”

Now the London Senlis Council has promoted an alternative to eradication. It is advocating the use of poppies for medicine. It wants to converts poppies into morphine for the global south. There is a worldwide shortage of morphine. Poppy for Medicine’s strategy involves licensing the controlled cultivation of poppy to produce essential poppy-based medicines such as morphine, and unlicensed poppy cultivation remains a criminal activity. It was established in Turkey in the 1970s as a means of breaking farmers’ ties with the heroin market without resorting to forced poppy crop eradication. Within just four years, this strategy successfully brought the country’s illegal poppy crisis under control.

This could solve Afghanistan’s problem too. Its dilemma is that this crop is vital to the Afghan economy but is at the same time destroying thousands of lives elsewhere. Destroying the crop only makes the situation worse, so the solution is to buy the opium crop from them. Currently there are only four nations in the world allowed to grow opium for morphine production (France, Spain, Turkey & India). 80 percent of the world’s supply is used by just six percent of the world’s population If Afghanistan was added to the list the price of morphine would fall dramatically and end the shortage. It could also end the opiaphobic solutions preferred by Rudd and the Americans.

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