There has been a series of opium stories in the last couple of days that highlight some of the big questions in drug policy that the media and politicians rarely if ever want to mention, let alone explore in a rational and intelligent way.
First up was a report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) about how much profit the Taleban (BBC) or Taliban (Daily Mail) are making from Afghan opium production. The figure given is a charmingly rounded and media friendly (although somewhat Dr Evil-esq) one hundred million dollars, which is, according to the UNODC, 10% of the total value of Afghan opium harvest valued at a similarly nice round $1 billion.
This announcement follows a curious pattern in similar UNODC missives, apparently torn between wanting to let people know how bad the drug crisis has become, so as to justify their existence (and expanding budgets), and at the same time studiously avoiding the fact that it is the quite staggering failure of the international drug control infrastructure they have overseen for the past 47 years that has allowed such disastrously destructive illegal markets to emerge (indeed thrive). A similarly bizarre 'look how useless international drug control is; we are needed more than ever' announcement was made about increased cocaine production in the Andes this week.
Interestingly UNODC Director Antonio Costa is at pains to point out that the failure of the billions poured into counter-narcotics operations in Afghanistan is even worse than was previously thought, with the Taleban moving into processing the opium into heroin, so as to make more money for the various unpleasant military and terrorist activities, and also noting that last year’s production was so massive (and by implication drug control so hopeless) that there is as much as 4000 tonnes of opium (enough to supply the global illicit market for a year) stockpiled somewhere across Afghanistan. This is disheartening news for the British troops (of whom over a hundred have now died, many whilst involved in anti drug operations); even if our boys achieve the impossible and prevent 100% of the opium production this year, the flow of opium will be essentially uninterrupted, and the whole hopeless charade will begin again next season. The miserable futility and human cost of this whole shamelessly political exercise is laid bare for all to see. There will doubtless be more bad news dressed up in as success in tomorrow’s UN World Drug Report. Watch this space.
Next, to Iran where it was announced 2 days ago that Iranian customs and police had intercepted a record 900 tonnes of opium, just over a third of the 2500 tonnes estimated to be entering the country in 2007 from neighbouring Afghanistan. Indeed Iran does have, by global standards, an impressive record in percentage terms for national drug seizure rates. But, and it deserves a capital B, not only did 1400 tonnes not get seized, but seizure rates (assuming the total estimate figures are correct) fell from 46% in 2006 and the total that got through actually increased. Moreover, since Iran upped its game on the interdiction front, the traffickers have done the logical thing and, being highly flexible and non-stupid, redirected or opened up new routes for getting their opium/heroin from Afghanistan to Western markets, mostly to the North through the former Soviet Republics and Baltic states. Thus it ever was with highly profitable markets run by organised criminals with more interest in making money than respecting traditions and national boundaries. Interestingly this analysis is not lost on the UNODC, which, again rather confusingly, is happy to proclaim local supply control successes whilst simultaneously revealing the stunning failure of the bigger picture regards total drug production - (often in the same press release, with last week’s cocaine press release being a splendid example). Indeed UNODC director Costa, an economist by trade, has made it very clear in public statements and publications that he understands this analysis of the brutal realities of supply and demand economics within a completely unregulated and highly profitable illicit trade (see for example here and here). The Iranian success, needless to say, has had no more impact on heroin supplies in the West than the recent UNODC trumpeted Afghan mega cannabis bust/nuking had on cannabis supplies (note how the ever scientific Daily Mail claims in this report "that Officials believe the area - near to the Taliban stronghold of Quetta in Pakistan - was turning dried cannabis leaves into heroin." - Im no biochemist but I'm positive that's not feasible)
And so finally to the sun dappled meadows of rural Southern England which, we are informed in a classic Daily Mail non-scoop, are now "The opium fields of England", in which "heroin-producing poppies [are] grown to make NHS pain-relief drugs" (since 2002). Unfortunately, nowhere in the Mail coverage do we learn that one the 'NHS pain-relief drugs' made from said poppies is in fact heroin. More significantly perhaps, we also do not learn that some of this 100% legal heroin 'made from heroin-producing poppies' 'identical to the plant used to produce heroin' is then legally prescribed to around 400 long term UK based heroin addicts, in injectable form, as part of a maintenance/stabilisation/treatment program. Indeed fact fans will be interested to learn that Macfarlan Smith, mentioned in the Daily Mail piece, are the only company licensed to buy poppies to produce opiates in the UK (there's another story here about their monopoly abuse pricing policy that means UK heroin is six times as expensive as in Holland but that will have to wait for another time). Also farmers do not require a license to grow opium poppies but are apparently required to inform the Police about cultivation. The licensing of the cultivation of legal opium (which until last year's bumper Afghan harvest was actually more than 50% of total global opium production) in the UK and elsewhere (primarily Tasmania, India and Turkey, but also Spain and Norway), its transit around the world, and its processing into various opiate drugs, including heroin, is overseen by...the UNODC.
As an aside the Daily Mail is also not exactly correct when they claim that: "Extracting opium from the poppies and turning it into morphine – or heroin" is "complex and expensive". Making morphine and heroin is tricky, but extracting opium - which is itself a potentially potent and addictive substance, is simple enough, requiring only some basic scraping of opium gum from the scarred poppy heads or a simple boiling and reduction process. Opium poppy seeds can be bought in any garden center and growing them is not illegal (odd in some ways that many of the UK's opiate users haven’t latched onto this). You can actually buy opium poppy heads, from which opium can be easily extracted, from most craft shops, and I even saw them for sale in IKEA the other day. Yes, you probably have some Class A drugs nestling in that dried flower arrangement on your mantle piece and don’t even know it. If you get bored and are not averse to risk and law breaking, I'm reliably informed you need about 12 heads for a decent dose.
But back to the real issue here. The opium poppies growing in those fields all over Hampshire and the South East (you can actually see one from just outside Didcot Parkway station for frequent London to Bristol train travelers like me), whilst botanically identical in every way to those growing in the wilds of Helmland province, have some significant and one would have thought fairly obvious distinctions. They are not funding nasty military operations by oppressive
Islamic militants, extremists and terrorists; the profits from their production and supply are going to farmers and legitimate companies. The heroin they are used to produce is 100% legal, is prescribed by doctors and used relatively safely by their patients – whom as a result are not dying of overdoses, getting HIV or Hep C through needle sharing, getting nasty infections from contaminated street drugs and dirty needles, robbing you, me, or your granny in the street, burgling your house, or prostituting themselves to raise money to pay the inflated prices demanded by illicit markets run by violent gangsters and street dealers.
We can keep on trying to eradicate production, cross our fingers that it’ll work one day (20 years was the latest plucked-from-nowhere estimate from DFID and the World Bank) and that when it does opiate addiction will be a thing of the past.
Or, back in the real world, experience suggests we need to take a different, arguably more pragmatic approach and firstly expand the model that is already in place, is 100% legal and operational under domestic and international law, and unlike the desperate and demonstrably futile interdiction efforts the UNODC and UK Government continue to back (at terrible human cost), is based on an extensive evidence base to prove its effectiveness on key public health and criminal justice indicators. Quite simply; every dependent opiate user brought within the legal system will reduce the demand for Afghan opium and horrors associated with its production, supply and use.
Do not expect to read this last paragraph in tomorrow's UN World Drug Report