Thursday, September 06, 2007

Guardian: article on Afghanistan from Transform

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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).





Medical use of Afghanistan's opium won't solve the problem

Prescribed heroin for long-term addicts would be a better way of reducing the drug trade, says Steve Rolles

Thursday September 6, 2007
The Guardian

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 steve@tdpqvbcbf.org.uk



2 comments:

Steve R said...

unedited version

This week’s alarming UN reports on the Afghan opium crop, now over 93% of global illicit production, prompted much media coverage and debate. Monday’s Guardian leader acknowledged the futility of eradication efforts but then, noting that ‘There is an alternative’ gave qualified support to the high profile Senlis Council plan to pilot the licensing of Afghan opium production for medical use.

Superficially at least the idea has great appeal, potentially both helping Afghanistan toward political stability and filling the apparent shortfall in medical opiates. Around half of global opium production is legal and licensed for the medical market and unlike the half that is non-medical illegal production, medical opiates are not profiting criminals, fuelling conflict, or being sold to addicts on street corners. Yet the Senlis vision is both ill conceived and impractical, even if well intentioned.

As other expert writers identified in Wednesday’s Guardian (‘Eradication or Legalisation?’) the plan faces a raft of currently insurmountable political and practical problems relating to Afghanistan’s chaotic status as failed state and war zone. Furthermore the medical opiates ‘shortage’ is primarily related to bureaucratic and licensing issues for UN drug agencies leading to under use of existing stocks, rather than a shortage of raw opium. Flooding an already over-saturated market would potentially cause precisely the supply/demand imbalance the UN control system was designed to prevent.

Simon Jenkins (in Wednesday’s Guardian) identifies the core problem common to all of the solutions being widely discussed, that they ignore the basic law of economics: where such huge demand and profit opportunities exist, criminal profiteers will always find a way to meet demand. Eradication efforts, alternative development schemes, or the Senlis plan for alternative markets, can therefore only have marginal, short term and localised impacts: opium production will become more profitable as supply temporarily contracts, and simply be diverted to other regions. Jenkins correctly surmises that the only real solution is the reduction in domestic demand for the illicit product.

The Government have made it a top drug policy priority and thrown billions at achieving such a reduction, yet it remains elusive, with UK heroin use rising from 1997 to 2001 before stabilising at its current historic high-point. The alternative, one that can collapse the Afghan opium market and actually reduce demand for illicit heroin, is to supply it through licit channels by repealing the global prohibition on its 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. Longer-term falls in problematic use can only be achieved by addressing the underlying causes rooted in social deprivation.

This does not require legalisation’, merely an expansion of an existing legal framework. Such a move has the support of numerous senior police and policy makers, and a long and proven international track record of success on key public health and criminal justice indicators. The only obstacle is not a practical one, it is political cowardice in confronting the failure of a US inspired and led ‘war on drugs’.

Whilst 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 indeed be a place for smaller scale licensing of Afghan opium at some point in the future, certainly for their domestic medical needs and perhaps as part of an amnesty plan or transition program for farmers moving into alternative crops. But
there is a danger that an over-hyped 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.

MttJocy said...

I have to agree with you that the editing has really stripped the meaning out of this article, as a pro reform supporter I managed to pick things up from the edited article but when I read it again deliberately refraining from judgement on anything but the modified articles content the article became somewhat blunt lacking alot of the more important supporting points in the unedited version that force the reader to seriously rethink the status quo.

I notice specifically the article somewhat blunts the point showing that economics argument, the one argument I feel (as presented by yourself which was well written I feel) namely the economics argument the edited version seams to skim over the fact that by making afgan opium legal for medical use there would instantly be a supply vaccum created by the recreational demand, the failure to fufill this multi billion pound demand would obviously lead to alternative supply, the edited article skims this with nothing more than a vauge reference.