More than 15 years after the Western coalition ousted Afghanistan's Taliban regime, the scourge of illicit opium still dogs the country. At the same time, amid efforts to eradicate Afghanistan's opium industry, authorities in the U.S. and Australia are clamping down on addictive painkillers, leaving millions of people suffering pain without treatment worldwide. The situation has led to suggestions that it is time to revisit the solution opposed by key Western countries a decade ago: legalizing Afghanistan's opium production.
In Afghanistan, still poor after years of economic development efforts, results of the government's nation-rebuilding endeavors have been mixed. There have been marked improvements in some welfare indicators like school attendance and infant mortality, but slowing growth in the tiny formal economy shows per capita gross domestic product of just $620 for the 31 million people and continuing high reliance on aid inflows and military assistance.
The one sector that is booming is opium. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that Afghanistan's 2016 opium production was 4,800 tons, a 43% increase on 2015.
This crop was entirely illicit and not included in the GDP calculations -- nor was the nearly $1 billion it would have earned the Afghan growers, minus some "tax" paid to the Taliban insurgency.
The UNODC figures point to a massive failure of opium suppression efforts by foreign and international anti-narcotics agencies. In 2015, crops were destroyed on only 3,760 hectares out of 183,000 hectares planted with poppies. In 2016, UNODC thinks eradication teams got to only 355 hectares out of 201,000 hectares of poppy fields. The U.S alone has spent $8.4 billion on counter-narcotics programs in Afghanistan. It has all been wasted.
Dusting off an idea
The time has come, perhaps, to dust off an idea that was comprehensively shot down a decade ago by the U.S. and some close allies, as well as international agencies whose officials have a vested career interest in the suppression approach to the opium industry.
The London-based International Council on Security and Development for Afghanistan floated a plan in the early 2000s to trial licensed growing of opium, with the crop going into local production of medicinal painkillers like codeine and morphine.
Over 2005 and 2006, the idea gained the interest of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government and discussions involving several ministries on a pilot project that would involve experts on public health, agriculture, rural development and counter-narcotics.
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