Poppies for Medicine in Afghanistan: A Potential Balm for Numerous Ills
Metta Spencer is editor of Peace Magazine. This is an excerpt of her interview with the founder and lead researcher of the Senlis Council (www.senliscouncil.net), Norine MacDonald, who in 2007 was awarded the First Class Medal of Merit by the Italian Red Cross for outstanding contributions to international humanitarian cooperation. This interview was originally published in Peace Magazine, July-September 2008, www.peacemagazine.org. The Senlis Council (which has recently changed its name to the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS)) is far from a pacifist organization, but the approach they are advocating here is a nonviolent one with potential for violence reduction. Questions are in italics.
Instead of forcibly burning poppy fields in southern Afghanistan, the international community could be assisting Afghan farmers with a program to produce much-needed painkillers instead of illegal (and deadly) heroin. Similar programs have worked in India and Turkey.
Were you living in Afghanistan when you conceived this idea?
No, I started The Senlis Council six years ago. The Council was started in order to look at drug policies, and we were working mostly on European issues from an office in Paris.
But about three and a half years ago, Afghanistan became the top producer of opium for heroin. We looked at the situation there and had the idea that perhaps the farmers could grow the opium poppies for morphine rather than heroin.
So I went there just to do a feasibility study, which we thought would just take us a couple of months. We have continued work on that project over these last three years -- and have also started looking at security issues, the return of the Taliban, and the relationships among counter-narcotics policy, insurgency issues, and development issues.
Based on this experience, the Senlis Council as an organization has grown from just looking at counter-narcotics issues to considering a wider spectrum of issues.
Let's concentrate on the "Poppy for Medicine" project.
Okay. There is a global shortage of what are called "essential painkillers" -- morphine and codeine. I'll just talk about morphine here. All the richest countries, including Canada, have a sufficient supply, but in most developing countries there is none, or, if you can get it, it is extremely expensive. That includes Afghanistan itself, where if you can find morphine in a pharmacy it costs the earth to buy a day's worth of medicine. So what we want to do next is a pilot project to test the idea that Afghan farmers could grow the opium poppy under a village license system and convert it at the local level to morphine, for use in meeting the shortage in developing countries.
It sounds like a plan from heaven.
We think so! We're not saying this should happen 100 per cent across the country in the next season. We want to run pilot projects over the next three years so we can test the various protocols and proposals that we have developed for control, quality control, and distribution. The first step is to prove whether those protocols can deal with the various issues that would be involved.
John Polanyi, a Nobel laureate, published an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail about this idea a couple of years ago. When I read it, I thought "Oh, this is so brilliant, why aren't they doing this already?" What are the arguments of people who oppose the very notion?
Well, the main opposition actually comes from the United States administration. The counter-narcotics policy in Afghanistan is not an Afghan creation. The United States is the leader for counter-narcotics policy and it's primarily administered by the UK. It's financed by the US and the UK. So they've taken classic US "War on Drugs" policies, which you see mostly in Latin America (Colombia for example) and have brought those into Afghanistan.
Those policies are primarily based on forced poppy crop eradication -- ploughing up the poppy fields. And their basis for that, to give it the best argument, is that they believe in pursuing a zero tolerance policy and that, by allowing pilot projects like Poppy for Medicine, they would be "sending a mixed message." The difficulty of course is that this American-led counter-narcotics policy has not only been unsuccessful (cultivation has gone up year after year in southern Afghanistan), but the policy of ploughing up the Afghan poppy farmers' crop before harvest leaves these farmers, who are extremely poor, without any means to feed their families. It turns them against the international community. So the counter-narcotics policy is extremely inflammatory.
We confront an immovable policy box in Washington. So we're trying to meet all their concerns about Poppy for Medicine in our protocols, and continue to develop responses that can be worked out in the pilot project.
One argument that seems to come up early in the conversation is that even if you were buying the poppy from the farmers, there's nothing that keeps the drug people from getting some of it. So you can't really stamp out the drug trade just by buying the farmers' crops at a modest price.
The way that we've responded to that is with the idea of the village-based license. Just as in rural areas in North America, everyone knows how much land their neighbor has. And everyone knows how many kilograms of opium that land will produce. So the licenses wouldn't be given to individuals. If you and I were living side by side as farmers, we don't each get a license but the entire village gets a license. If anybody sells opium to a trafficker, then the entire village is going to lose its license. So by setting it up that way, you have this sort of community co-policing, to make sure that the opium that's being produced is being delivered to the factory to be converted to morphine.
We've based a lot of our work on the experience in two other countries that actually do have licensed opium, Turkey and India.
In the 1960s America was flooded with heroin from Turkey and India. At first, the Americans responded as they have in Afghanistan, with forced poppy crop eradication in Turkey. And, just as in Afghanistan, it led to a lot of rural political instability. And then they hit upon this idea to finance the conversion of that production in Turkey and India to medicinal production, which the United States financed, and helped them build the necessary factories. And then the United States signed a preferential trade agreement with Turkey and India, committing to buy 80% of their production. And that continues to this day.
Yet you said the US is dead set against your proposal.
Yes. The European Parliament has supported it in a resolution, and the Canadian Manley Commission on Afghanistan endorsed the idea of pilot projects. But the US administration has opposed it.
Almost every single year, the Americans have
also wanted to move on to aerial chemical spraying, which is what
they do in Colombia. They want to spray some sort of high-powered
Roundup herbicide from airplanes onto the agricultural lands of
southern Afghanistan to eradicate poppies. We've opposed
that. In Colombia it has not been an effective counter-narcotics
policy, and there are environmental and health concerns. And it
would add yet another inflammatory element to the relationship
with the local population that we're supposedly trying
to be friendly with.
For a critique of the Senlis' Council's approach regarding Poppies, see Frèdèric Grare,
'Anatomy of a Fallacy: The Senlis Council and Narcotics in Afghanistan', Centre
for International Governance Innovation, February 2008,http://www.afghanconflictmonitor.org/2008/02/anatomy-of-a-fa.html .