Below is the printed version of the today's response column in the Guardian, which I'm pleased to say, I wrote. It has been heavily edited and lost some clarity I think, so I will post the unedited version in discussion just for the record. The article is also in the Guardian's Comment is free section so please feel free to add comments there (as well as here).
Thursday September 6, 2007
This week's alarming UN reports on the Afghan opium crop, showing that it now accounts for over 93% of global illicit production, prompted much debate. A Guardian leader (The drugs don't work, August 27) acknowledged the futility of eradication efforts, but gave qualified support to the Senlis Council plan to pilot the licensing of Afghan opium production for medical use.
Superficially, the idea has great appeal, potentially helping Afghanistan toward political stability and filling the apparent shortfall in medical opiates. Yet the Senlis vision is both ill-conceived and impractical.
As other experts identified in another article (Eradication or legalisation?, August 29) the plan faces a raft of political and practical problems relating to Afghanistan's chaotic status as a failed state and war zone. Furthermore the medical opiates "shortage" is primarily related to bureaucratic and licensing issues for UN drug agencies leading to underuse of existing stocks, rather than a shortage of raw opium. Flooding an already saturated market would potentially cause precisely the supply/demand imbalance that the UN control system was designed to prevent.
Simon Jenkins (Britain is stoned at home and sold out in Helmand, August 29) identifies the core problem common to all of the solutions being widely discussed: where such huge demand and profit opportunities exist, criminal profiteers will always find a way to supply. The only real solution is reducing domestic demand for the illicit product.
The government has spent billions trying achieve this through supply-side enforcement and coerced treatment. And yet UK heroin use rose from 1997 to 2001 before stabilising at its current historic high. The alternative, one that can collapse the Afghan opium market and largely eliminate illicit supply, is to repeal the global prohibition on non-medical production, supply and use. In the short term this process can begin by dramatically expanding the prescribing of heroin in a clinical setting to the UK's long-term addicts. This does not require "legalisation", merely an expansion of existing legal frameworks. Longer-term falls in problematic use can only be achieved by addressing the underlying causes rooted in social deprivation.
Such a move has the support of numerous senior police and policy makers, and a long international track record of success on key public-health and criminal-justice measures. The only obstacle is political cowardice in confronting the failure of a US-inspired "war on drugs".
While undoubtedly useful in stimulating debate, the Senlis proposal is now casting a shadow over more thoughtful and cautious policy work being undertaken by other drug-policy NGOs. There may be a place for smaller-scale licensing of Afghan opium at some point in the future. But there is a danger that an overhyped but ultimately doomed "legalisation" plan is potentially undermining a reform movement struggling to promote a more nuanced exploration of realistic models for regulated drug production and supply that includes non-medical use.
· Steve Rolles is the Transform Drug Policy Foundation's information officer email@example.com