Monday, November 10, 2008

Drug war remembrance

Remembrance Sunday, a tradition that seemed to be waning in its national importance, has assumed a new meaning and relevance for the younger generations with the event of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. The day is still marked by the wearing of poppies, a tradition that grew out of the emergence of the flowers on the battlefields in the Flanders and Picardy regions of Belgium and Northern France at the end of World War I.

It is hard to escape the dual-symbolism of the poppy in relation to the Afghanistan conflict. Over 800 coalition soldiers have died in Afghanistan, over a hundred of them British - at least some of which have been as a direct result of anti-drug operations aimed at eradicating the poppy harvest that provides the raw opium that in turn feeds over 90% the West's demand for illicit heroin. Many more Afghans have also died, both combatants and civilians. The symbolic historical links of the poppy with death are not just the blood red from battle fields but also the opium connection; the poppy being used as a traditional tombstone emblem to symbolise eternal sleep.

The Afghan conflict is, of course, more complex than merely a war on drugs, but the massive illicit profits that flow from the poppy fields are fueling the violence, and helping destabilize the entire region. Eradication of the illicit trade is a key element of the coalition and now NATO strategies into which billions of pounds has been poured, and for which no let up is on the horizon. Yet there is nothing from the experience of the past 7 years to suggest it is even remotely possible, as recent bumper harvests and stockpiling demonstrate.

It also needs to be repeated that it is the prohibition of opiates for non medical use that creates the illicit trade in the first instance. There is no violence, criminal profiteering or terrorism associated with the 50% of global poppy production (for medical use) that is entirely legal and regulated. It is prohibition that creates the link between drugs and terror, and prohibition that is responsible for the nexus of their respective wars - which become increasingly difficult to disentangle as each year passes.

If we do make the terrible decision to send soldiers to war, with all the consequences and bloodshed that entails, then we should have a damn good reason for doing it. An unwinnable and counterproductive war against drugs comes nowhere close. Whilst we remember our fallen soldiers with poppies, we should not forget that their fellow soldiers continue to die in a pointless fight against poppies.

We may not know yet how to solve the complex issues of international terrorism, but we do know how to solve the problems created by the drug war.

Photos: Guardian,, Aaron Huey


Anonymous said...

(pedant mode on)
It's a different sort of poppy actually, the little red ones don't make opium
(end pedant mode)

Otherwise, a very poignant comment Steve, the significance of which is probably totally lost on those planning the Afghan adventure.

Steve Rolles said...

I *think* all poppies contain some opium (which has various alkaloids in it), but the small red ones have less/very little so are not farmed for it - happy to be corrected oin that. Traditional opium poppies certainly come in a number of colours, including white, purple and red.