The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has published a new report on poppy cultivation and opium production in Afghanistan, the Afghanistan Opium Survey 2007. The report contains some useful and sobering facts. In 2007, the acreage cultivated with opium poppies in Afghanistan increased by 17% over the 2006 level. The amount of Afghan land used for opium is now larger than the corresponding total for coca cultivation in Latin America (Colombia, Peru and Bolivia combined). Opium yields also increased (to 42.5 kg/ha in 2007 from 37.0 kg/ha in 2006). Afghanistan therefore produced an extraordinary 8,200 tons of opium in 2007 (34% more than in 2006 and 93% of the global opiates market).
The report also contains some some ludicrous assertions and cockamamie analysis, which one suspects was dropped on the authors of the report from on high. This suspicion is strengthened by the singularly loopy statements at the launch of the document and in its Introduction by Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of the UNODC (and my former colleague on the Executive Committee of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development). Mr. Costa is one of those bureaucrats for whom the conventional scientific modes of proof – proof by deduction and proof by induction – take second place to a third mode of proof (not yet recognised as fully legitimate in scholarly discourse – proof by repeated assertion.
Even someone widely acknowledged as not the sharpest arrow in the quiver should have caught the manifest absurdity of the characterisation, in his own Introduction to the Survey, of opium as “… the world’s deadliest drug…”. As regards deadliness, opium and its derivatives isn’t a patch on tobacco and alcohol.
Mr. Costa’s most accurate reported statement is “The Afghan opium situation looks grim, but it is not yet hopeless,”; this statement is half right: the Afghan opium situation is both grim and hopeless. He goes on to say: “Where anti-government forces reign, poppies flourish,” a correct statement of the observed statistical association between poppy production and the degree of Taliban control in Afghanistan since Taliban’s de-facto rule over the country was ended by the US-led Allied troops almost six years ago.
As a (former) social scientist, Mr. Costa must be aware of the pitfalls associated with the causal interpretation of a statistical association between two phenomena, A and B, say. The statistical association could mean that A causes B, that B causes A, that A and B are interdependent, or that some third factor (or set of phenomena), C, say, is driving (causes) both A and B, without either A influencing B or B influencing A – the ‘common third factor’ interpretation.
Mr. Costa, however, has no doubt; as far as he is concerned, Taliban control of an area causes poppy cultivation to expand in that area. The fact that when the Taliban controlled all of the country, poppy cultivation was almost wiped out, is conveniently forgotten. The Report’s policy recommendation that tackling the Taliban insurgency is key to stemming opium cultivation misses the point completely. Key to tackling the Taliban insurgency is the legalisation of the production, sale and consumption of poppy and its currently illegal derivatives, opium and heroin. This will deprive the Taliban both of political support from farmers who see their livelihoods destroyed or threatened by the Allies’ eradication efforts, and of a ready-made tax and extortion base.
Let me expand slightly: there is indeed a third ‘common (set of) factor(s)’ at work here: the main one is the fact that poppy cultivation and the production, sale and consumption of poppy derivatives such as opium and heroine are illegal almost everywhere. US anti-drugs policy, driven by a bizarre mixture of mindless moralising and complete idiocy and inability to learn from repeated abject failure, is especially vehement, ruthless (at home and abroad) and ineffective. The US government is both the leading opponent of the Taliban and the world’s leading proponent of eradication of drugs ranging from poppy derivatives to coca and cannabis. Poppy cultivation for the illegal market in Afghanistan is more profitable for many local farmers than any other realistically cultivable crop. Attempts by the US, its allies and the Karzai government to eradicate the cultivation of poppy destroy political support for the government and increases support for the Taliban, which can offer protection to illegal poppy growers. The Taliban then tax the poppy crop and the growing share of the opium production that takes place in inside Afghanistan.
The case for legalising currently illegal drugs like opium, heroin, cocaine, and various cannabis derivatives can be made on both utilitarian and libertarian grounds. The utilitarian case has recently been effectively restated by Ethan Nadelmann, in the September/October issue of Foreign Policy. The website of the Drug Policy Alliance, of which Mr. Nadelmann is founder and Executive Director, contains useful statistics, arguments, and information about drug policies worldwide. The resurgence of the odious Taliban in Afghanistan, the illegal drug-related violence and corruption of politics in Columbia and Mexico, Peru, Bolivia and Morocco are a direct result of the criminalisation of drug use.
US anti-drugs policy is not only causing massive harm domestically, it is destroying countries that most Americans have never even visited. Whenever the Taliban extends its control over another city or province, and their barbaric suppression of women and general cult of ignorance destroys the human dignity of yet another generation of Aghanistanis, the anti-drugs Czar (the Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), currently John P. Walters) and his boss in the White House can take a large share of the credit. Those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.
 There could also be a common third factor, C, as well as interdependence between A and B.
© Willem H. Buiter 2007