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Legalizing Opium: A Shift in the Developmental Paradigm

A close-up of an opium poppy in Afghanistan.

The legacy of foreign involvement in Afghanistan is both extensive and controversial. Whether referring to Soviet manipulation of the state during the Cold War or the continued American presence in the country — arguably the symbol of broken foreign policy promises by the Obama Administration — Afghanistan’s past has been shaped by outsiders. However, while discussion on the impact of intervention in Afghanistan is crucial to understanding the country’s place in the global system today, it is important to note that Afghanistan’s political and economic identity has also been influenced by the rising production of one entity: opium. While opium has been banned in the state for decades, Afghanistan — with the oversight of the international community — has the opportunity to move opium from a commodity of the black market to a major source of legitimate income and utility in the global economy. This process, which begins with the legalization and regulation of Afghan opium, must be supported now to combat the continued proliferation of illegal opium, a key source of national instability.

The proposition of legalization offers Afghanistan the chance to expand and diversify its economy. Opium production would move into a national and global arena, where it may be properly regulated rather than continue to exist as a source of heroin. For the international community, the proposal also addresses a worldwide shortage of opiate-based medicines, a problem that disproportionately affects poorer nations. Additionally, the legalization of opium production is a creative opportunity to weaken the control of the Taliban and similar insurgent groups who depend upon illegal opium production as a source of revenue and recruits.

The eradication of opium production has been an official pillar of the correction measures that were enacted by the Afghan government and supported by the governments of the United States, United Kingdom, and allies.  In fact, from 2004 to 2014, the American government funneled roughly $7.6 billion into this unsuccessful eradication program. Yet, data collected from 1997 to 2014 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reveal that the area of land used for opium production in the country has increased nearly 23-fold since the American invasion of Afghanistan after September 11. Concurrently, opium production has increased from 185 tons to 6,400 tons.  At the same time, the eradication status quo has been increasingly challenged, beginning with a 2007 report by the International Council on Security and Development and continuing to advance today.  In its place, a bold alternative has emerged: the controlled and regulated legalization of opium.  This intense proliferation of illegal opium makes this issue particularly pressing: By stalling action, illegal Afghan opium, in the form of heroin, will continue to flow to Europe and Russia while also burgeoning an internal, Afghan heroin epidemic.

Critics of legalization have highlighted that many of the countries that have successfully legalized opium production, such as Turkey and India, have strict and sophisticated law enforcement to facilitate regulation. Yet, the legalization of opium also offers Afghanistan an opportunity to systematically strengthen its own governmental infrastructure and expand employment in order to fill the current void in physical control over the regulation of opium markets.  Opium legalization may also function as an opportunity for Afghanistan, with the aid of other parties, to utilize its reclaimed autonomy and develop effective governance.  While neoliberal developmental ideals have pushed for decentralization of government in favor of a more free-market state, in Afghanistan’s case a more pronounced governmental presence is needed. Regulation of opium production is a crucial opportunity for the Afghan government to penetrate rural areas void of official rule and law. Guidelines presented in the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, as well as organizations like the International Narcotics Control Board and United States Drug Enforcement Administration,  can function as supplemental aids for the changes.  Thus, many of the guidelines needed to ensure safe and reliable cultivation are fully coded in international convention as well as in domestic policies of other governments. These can only serve to help Afghanistan in its efforts to reestablish a government based upon legitimacy.  The provision of a service, regulation to ensure the safety of production and guarantee success on the market, is a manner in which the Afghan government may work towards such legitimacy.

Much of the opposition to the legalization proposal is rooted in the social construction that intrinsically equates opium to heroin and its dangerous consequences.  It is true that Afghanistan produces nearly 90 percent of the world’s illegal opium, most of which finds its way into Europe or Russia in the form of heroin.   However, heroin is only one function of opium’s multifaceted role as a base for critical, opiate-based painkillers such as morphine, oxycodone, and codeine.  In fact, these opiate-based medicines are used in long-term drug addiction therapy, including therapy for heroin addiction. The World Health Organization lists morphine and other opiate-based medication on its list of Essential Medicines, the definitive list of medications deemed necessary to each global citizen. However,  in 2010, the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France, six developed countries, accounted for almost 80 percent of the consumption of opium-based medicines, while developing countries accounted for just six percent. The International Narcotics Control Board found that 80 percent of the world’s population does not have access to the opium-based medicines that it needs. To the world’s most privileged, opium represents a drug plague, necessitating all-out eradication — but this eradication comes at the direct medical expense of the world’s least privileged. Through the legalization of opium production, Afghanistan may help provide a significant amount of the much needed medication and most directly benefit the developing world, alleviating the gap between the medical and development situations of most states.

According to the International Council on Security and Development, “Afghanistan could supply this market with medical morphine at a price at least 55 percent lower than the market average.”  In contrast to years of negativity associated with Afghan opium production in the international community, this change could bring about a positive turn where Afghanistan would be able to address a global health concern.  Moreover, Afghanistan could enter a market previously closed to much of the developing world with a tangible comparative advantage.

While addressing a global health concern, the legalization of opium production also addresses a global security concern. The failure of the eradication approach itself arises from the policies of the Taliban. As Graham Farrell of Loughborough University and John Thorne of the University of Cincinnati explain, in the face of international pressure and diplomacy “the Taliban regime enforced an existing ban on opium poppy growing from July 2000 onwards. The ban was enforced by three principal techniques: the threat of punishment, the close local monitoring and eradication of continued poppy farming, and the public punishment of transgressors.” The ban succeeded in eliminating 99 percent of opium production within the Taliban-controlled areas. However, following the American invasion of Afghanistan after September 11, the Taliban lost its incentive for compliance and lifted the opium ban, allowing local farmers to return to this lucrative trade and earning their favor in the process. To this day, the Taliban offers protection to farmers of illegal opium production – for a fee, of course.  The United Nations estimates that the insurgency extracts roughly $3 billion a year from opium farmers, describing the Taliban’s role “more like ‘godfathers’ than a ‘government in waiting.’”  Moreover, as Azam Ahmed of the New York Times states, those associated with the Taliban are intertwined with the opium trade at every level, serving in positions ranging from high cartel officials to lowly field hands.  In this sense, opium production in Afghanistan has been described as a “24/7” recruiting opportunity for the Taliban, where Taliban mix fluidly with the Afghan population, developing relationships of trust and comradery. Therefore, through the eyes of the local Afghan opium farmer, international policy seeks to destroy a lucrative trade while the Taliban work to maintain it. Because of this arrangement, the status quo of opium production undermines international policy on the Taliban because it categorizes the group as defenders of a way of life for the local population, not as a source of regional instability and state failure. The policy of opium eradication is a self-fulfilling prophecy that perpetuates a drug trade and a failing state. This situation also highlights exactly why the movement from eradication policy to legalization policy, and the subsequent shift in control of the industry from the hands of the Taliban to those of the Afghan government, can serve to weaken the control of the Taliban over the entire region.

The international community, led by the United States and its allies, continually faces major policy and strategic decisions when addressing the concept of foreign intervention and its consequences, particularly in developing nations. Amid constant loss of agency and sovereignty to the influence of external actors, the process of legalizing opium production in Afghanistan will entail a paradigm shift that seeks to return autonomy to a people, to legitimize the livelihood of a large part of the population, and to empower a nation to contribute to alleviating global suffering. The shift requires courage, as it necessitates placing trust in the government of a nation that has been plagued by instability and conflict, but the rewards may well be worth the risks.


About the Author

Nathaniel Pettit '20 is a US Section Staff Writer for the Brown Political Review.