Mixed reaction to calls for opium legalisation

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

KABUL, 15 Mar 2005 (IRIN) - Local officials and NGOs are divided on the idea of legalising opium cultivation for medical purposes in Afghanistan, currently the world’s top producer of the illicit crop.

“It is a new idea, and proper research has to be done to look again at all sides of it; the control mechanism, permission from the International Narcotics Control Board [INCB], and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime [UNODC],” Habibulllah Qaderi, Minister of Counter Narcotics, told IRIN in the capital Kabul, on Tuesday.

Their comments followed the launch of a new feasibility study in Vienna last week by the Senlis Council - an international drug policy think tank - for the creation of an opium licensing framework for Afghanistan, similar to frameworks already in place in Australia, France, Turkey and India.

The idea is to turn Afghanistan's massive levels of opium production away from drug lords and the illegal heroin trade, and towards serving the global need for essential opiate-based medicines such as morphine and codeine, the council said in a statement.

According to the United Nations, Afghanistan produces 87 percent of the world’s supply of opium. Some 2.3 million Afghan farmers grow the opium poppy and can make 10 times more money from it than they would cultivating legal crops.

“The position of the Afghan government would be that when proper research has been done and if it really helps the world community and Afghanistan, the government of Afghanistan would not have any problem [with it]. But if it does not help, we will not be supporting this idea,” Qaderi said.

Dave Mather, managing director of Afghan Aid, a Kabul-based NGO working to develop alternative livelihoods for farmers growing opium poppy, told IRIN that given the magnitude of the problem there was a need to look at all possible ways of tackling the issue.

“There is no magic wand that can resolve this issue and one needs to explore various methods to address it,” he said.

But some strongly rejected the idea. “It is ridiculous. If you legalise it [opium cultivation] than all the farmers will jump on this opportunity and opium cultivation could spread to all parts of the country,” an international analyst who did not want to be identified, told IRIN.

The Senlis Council report said that licensed opium production in Afghanistan could help to reduce the worldwide shortage of morphine for pain relief, which is particularly felt in developing countries.

"The world's largest supply of opium could be turned into essential medicine such as morphine and codeine rather than heroin," Emmanuel Reinert, executive director of the Senlis Council, said.

“Our solution would allow farmers to carry on producing opium for the legitimate and useful legal market instead of the illicit trade in heroin. Reducing the amount of heroin produced by Afghanistan's poppy crop would shift the drug trade and its profits from the drug lords and terrorists to the people of Afghanistan," Reinert added.

Under the current international system, countries are free to apply for a licence from the UN's INCB to legally produce and sell opium for medical purposes.

One of the concerns shared by many officials is how the trade would be regulated. “Unless there is a proper policing system, provincial officials who are not corrupt and a forum for the profits to be used for the development of the entire country, then the idea is not workable,” Qaderi said.

The findings of the Senlis study are expected to be discussed at an international drug policy symposium in Kabul scheduled for September 2005.

Source: Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), a project the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. IRIN is UN humanitarian news and information service, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.

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