ACCELER8OR

Jul 04 2011

Saying ‘Maybe’ to Drugs

By Woody Evans


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I’ve been floating a template law (called “Sustainable Opportunities for Rural Afghans Act”) for over a year now.  I’ve sent copies to my representatives in Congress, to the President, and to various NGO and para-governmental acquaintances.  I expected silence from the chief executive, a form letter from my representative (Hello, Joe Barton), and a bit of bubble (if not action) from my think tank type peeps; but action has been nil and talk has been quiet.  I know I’m no kinda “big deal” on Capital Hill, but what I don’t know is whether or not my proposal is taken by these high-rollers as a bad idea or as just a dot of signal in fields of noise.

Before discussing further, here’s the text of the the thing:

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Title: Sustainable Opportunities for Rural Afghans Act of 2010
An Act To Cripple the Taliban and Help Afghan Farm Families

PREAMBLE: Whereas we now face a global shortage of opiates for the production of morphine and other important medicines, and whereas the Taliban in Afghanistan use the illegal trade in Afghan opium to finance terrorism, and whereas the production of opium in Turkey and other countries is clearly not enough for legitimate medical need, and whereas granting rural Afghan farming families an economic ally other than the Taliban is good for the national security of the United States and secures global economic stability.

SECTION 1: Allow American pharmaceutical companies to buy from Afghan opium farmers.

SECTION 2: Levy no tariffs on Afghan-derived morphine or other opiate medications.

SECTION 3: Offer aid to Afghan opium farmers through The Office of the United States Trade Representative, United States Department of State Undersecretary for Economic, Energy, and Agricultural Affairs, USAID, and/or other bodies as appropriate.

SECTION 4: All Afghan farmers who are demonstrably cooperating with these new efforts by the United States after 1 year shall receive a bonus of $1000 US. This money shall be a reward for their cooperation, and shall deter farmers from cooperating or rejoining with Taliban interests.  Proven cooperation will result in a “bonus” each calendar year of an additional $100 of to be distributed before the holiday of Eid al-Fitr.

SECTION 5: Any farmer found cooperating with the Taliban, or selling opium to the Taliban will lose his bonus for that year and all other aid until he can again demonstrate that he is cooperating with the United States.

SECTION 6: Afghan farmers will be trained in the production of other crops as may be negotiated by the stakeholders and farmers, and farmers will be aided by the organizations outlined above  (SECTION 3) in finding markets for the new crops so that, at such time as the global opium market no longer requires high levels of sustained production from Afghanistan, the farming families will be equipped to supplement their income with the alternative crops without falling back into interdependence with the Taliban.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Clearly this law would be bad business for major pharma players (of which there are a mighty plentiful lot in Washington), because an increase in opiate supplies drops prices.  And this could potentially be very good for the narcotics black market, because the United States government would be buying up supply that traditionally wended to heroin dealers — driving up prices in already expensive underground economy.

But on the face of it, this law (or something much like it) would help in the stated efforts to “defeat, disrupt, and dismantle” al Qaeda and its allies.  As we press our advantage after the death of bin Laden, it seems reasonable to use every available tool toward our stated goal.

Unless our stated goal is not our actual goal.

Am I missing something?

  • By spencer, July 5, 2011 @ 6:41 am

    This makes so much sense in a practicle, straightforward way. It is another example of how the drug war dogma is potentially hurting WAY more than it’s helping. This seems like a talking point Gary Johnson could get behind, but they don’t let him on broadcast television anymore for some reason…

  • By iPan, July 6, 2011 @ 9:40 am

    Not bad, but I think it’s more important to focus on legalization and harm reduction.

    The Scandinavian countries are a fairly good model right now, as is certain S. American countries and their use of Ayahuasca to treat addiction.

    But, most of all, I think legalization of all drugs is the way to go.

  • By Tookie, July 15, 2011 @ 2:52 pm

    iPan this like looking at one particular prob — natnl security — not about legalization. seems like this article is not for legalization, but rather about the geo/political / economics of opium in afghanistan.

  • By Anonymous, July 16, 2011 @ 6:53 am

    The problem is with the anarchy and corruption within Afghanistan which would not prevent the drug company money from getting to the Taliban anyway.It seems that it would be impossible to separate the legitimate from the illegitimate drug revenues.

  • By bob, July 17, 2011 @ 6:20 am

    Two problems with this. One, the CIA doesn’t like competition. They control the drug trade, and they’re very brutal to competitors. Two, it’s not just an economic thing, it’s a political thing. Bribing people and such can only do so much when the US has been raping and pillaging the country for at least a half century.
    Another point to consider. Big Pharma doesn’t really like natural drugs. You can’t patent them. To them, it’s much better to have addicts paying $20 a pop for oxycontin than to help relieve their suffering with $1 of raw opium.

  • By paper mac, July 17, 2011 @ 4:31 pm

    You’re not hearing anything about this plan because it’s been floated literally dozens of times before and doesn’t make any more sense now than it did in 2005. The drug trade in Afghanistan is only one fragment in the constellation that is the central asian conflict economy. Your underlying premise (that fundamentalist Islamic militant groups in Afghanistan derive much or most of their funding from the drug trade) indicates that you need to do your homework. A few major points here:

    -“the Taliban” (which is more an American catch-all for “people who are shooting at us this week” than it is a meaningful descriptor of any particular armed group of Afghans) don’t derive a significant portion of their funding base from the opiate trade. It’s been estimated that revenue from the Af/Pak cross-border shipments of opiates provide perhaps 10-20% of the funding for anti-gov’t groups in Af.

    -ISAF allies have a FAR more strongly vested interest in the opiate trade than do ISAF enemies. Look up the activities of the late Ahmed Wali Karzai (or, indeed, the rest of the Karzai clan), ISAF’s great Afghan hope in Spin Boldak, Abdul Razik, etc. The reality is that any attempt to disassemble or reconfigure the opiate trafficking networks in Afghanistan would instantly lose ISAF the support of the only people with guns in the country who aren’t actively fighting them.

    -Big Pharma has absolutely no interest in purchasing dirty opium from Afghanistan at anything like the market price that would be required to incentivise Afghan farmers to sell to Pharma rather than to their local militia. The prices that are commanded by the underground market are enormously lucrative. Feedstock for pharma’s chemical plants, not so much.

    The basic reality of the drug trade in Afghanistan is that even if all of the above were not true, ISAF has zero meaningful control over most of the important Afghan opium production areas (they can intimidate a farmer into doing something one day, but he’s got to deal with thugs with AKs the other 6). ISAF and the Western intelligence agencies also have exactly zero control over the areas of the Af/Pak border, Balochistan, and Iran where the majority of opium is trafficked. It’s literally not possible for them to reconfigure the opium economy in this region, even if they wanted to. There’s a reason why shots of ISAF troops strolling past fields of opium poppies like they aren’t even there are a dime-a-dozen. They could expend tons of effort trying to interfere in this economy, at the risk of alienating the few allies they have in the country, but why would they? There’s just no incentive.

    As a final note: “Unless our stated goal is not our actual goal.”

    Conflict economies have a way of perverting the noblest of intentions. The reality is that every day the conflict in Afghanistan continues, is a day that an ISAF general, an NGO, a conflict journalist, a foreign policy specialist, a think tanker, a militant, a contractor/mercenary, a member of the ANA, etc can justify his or her salary. These things drag on for decades because they make people rich. If you really think that in a place like Afghanistan, the pronouncements of figureheads have anything to do with what’s actually going on on the ground, you’ve got no hope of understanding the underlying dynamics of the conflict.

  • By Stacy Marquez, July 18, 2011 @ 12:54 am

    First off you lost me in the Preamble, it’s too wordy and the “and whereas’ need to be removed.
    PREAMBLE: We now face a global shortage of opiates for the production of morphine and other important medicines, the Taliban in Afghanistan use the illegal trade in Afghan opium to finance terrorism, the production of opium in Turkey and other countries is clearly not enough for legitimate medical need, granting rural Afghan farming families an economic ally other than the Taliban is good for the national security of the United States and secures global economic stability.
    Also this appears to be a great idea on the surface but in reality section 3 and down will never be agreed upon by the US government. I agree with you and think it a great idea but unfortunately our government will not see it this way. There is not enough at stake for the US to step in and there is not enough for the US to gain. We must put up petitions and go public with this. With enough people behind you a change can be made. Martin Luther King Jr couldn’t have ever done it alone either. :-)

  • By Woody, July 18, 2011 @ 10:02 am

    paper mac,
    Thanks for that.

  • By Tookie, July 18, 2011 @ 10:33 am

    Preambles whereas and all that are the way they do the laws or bills? Must be like getting fly w/ sugar, make it look like what a law ‘looks’ like?

  • By anonymous, July 18, 2011 @ 3:42 pm

    Paper Mac said: “As a final note: “Unless our stated goal is not our actual goal.”

    Conflict economies have a way of perverting the noblest of intentions. The reality is that every day the conflict in Afghanistan continues, is a day that an ISAF general, an NGO, a conflict journalist, a foreign policy specialist, a think tanker, a militant, a contractor/mercenary, a member of the ANA, etc can justify his or her salary. These things drag on for decades because they make people rich. If you really think that in a place like Afghanistan, the pronouncements of figureheads have anything to do with what’s actually going on on the ground, you’ve got no hope of understanding the underlying dynamics of the conflict.”

    That being the case, this proposed “law” or any of the dozens of others like it would be a real threat to many powerful livelihoods. Good thing that such laws have no hope in Hell of passing through Congress or being signed in Oval Office.

    The article shows the power of a “good question”. Reminds you of the journalist who asked “is being gay a choice” and lots of people said yes, then he simply asked “so when did you decide to become straight”. Calls assumptions out in to open. If Afghanistan is not about security (b/c we won’t use an economic solution for the security problem), then you have to wonder if Afghanistan really is about money.

    Of course it is.

  • By pclayton, September 27, 2011 @ 9:05 am

    @ paper mac: You certainly have provided a lengthy explanation of “why this idea won’t float,” but it smacks of the kind of reception any idea that doesn’t take into account the imbedded systems and that are part of our political status in dealing with countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan. I love the idea of winning over our so-called enemies by offering them a business deal plus incentive to be a legal US supplier rather than an underground life or death system of cooperation with the Taliban. Wouldn’t the world be a better place for Afghanistan citizen farmers if their local crop could bring in legal support for them and their families? But, oh no, can’t happen. Things are too entrenched already, you say. People like journalists, military personnel, mercenaries do not want to lose their jobs if things were to cool off and become more up and up in that part of the world. So to keep these greedy folks in their position, we shouldn’t entertain a legitimate business with Afghanistan and Pakistan to purchase their opium for medical use here. That’s probably why we will never be able to really help these people–not their puppet dictators, but assist the plight of the actual citizens of these war torn countries–because too many people are making money with things status quo.

    Other than that, and other than synthesizing opiates, where does the US get it’s opium for processing into morphine for medical use? Do we grow our own? Do we have contracts with growers in other countries?

    As far as legalizing drugs for unprescribed uses goes, why should addicts determine who we contract with for our pharmaceutical raw materials? Fear of addiction among our people should stop us from doing a legitimate business with opium growers? Of course our presence in Afghanistan and the Middle East in general is ALL about money or we wouldn’t be there. Are we as interested in going into Somalia to do humanitarian work? Nah, no money in it. No wonder America looks like the bully we are.

  • By paper mac, November 18, 2011 @ 2:49 pm

    @pclayton

    I’m not sure what you’re objecting to. The idea won’t work because it doesn’t take into account the arrangement of the indigenous economy, nor does it take into account the interests of any of the actors involved (Afghan or foreign) or the interests of actors that would putatively be drawn in by the scheme (Big Pharma et al). The desire to unilaterally impose a particular type of economic arrangement on a bunch of foreigners without any consideration for their interests or desires because you think it’d be a good idea is no less totalitarian or doomed to failure than the occupation itself (particularly when you have zero meaningful leverage with those people and have spent the last decade killing their friends and families). People do things when they benefit from them, not because you happen to think it would be nice.

    As far as feedstocks for opiate pharmaceuticals go, they’re synthetic. Dealing with a bunch of Afghan farmers is a hell of a lot more difficult for the pharma majors than it is to buy their feedstocks from a petrochemical plant. Protecting bulk shipments of opium in central asia is so security intensive and unreliable in and of itself that it’s a non-starter, unless you somehow manage to co-opt the local trafficking networks (not likely)

  • By Woody, November 19, 2011 @ 10:29 pm

    @ paper mac,

    You say:

    “I’m not sure what you’re objecting to. The idea won’t work because it doesn’t take into account the arrangement of the indigenous economy, nor does it take into account the interests of any of the actors involved (Afghan or foreign) or the interests of actors that would putatively be drawn in by the scheme (Big Pharma et al).”

    But that’s not true — the idea is explicitly all about the interests of those with a stake in the indigenous economy, and the interests of Big Pharma.

    There may be better ways to write such a hypothetical law, and I encourage others to improve on this template. But let’s be clear — if “the idea won’t work” it isn’t because it doesn’t address those with interests in opiates production. Perhaps it doesn’t go far enough with incentives, or maybe there are better incentives than those this law lays down — but, again, this work is entirely concerned with incentivizing actors to move money and drugs out of Taliban influence and into the western economy.

    Your second point (“Dealing with a bunch of Afghan farmers is a hell of a lot more difficult for the pharma majors than it is to buy their feedstocks from a petrochemical plant.”) is a good one, and well taken.

    So — how would you propose a bill that gets us to similar ends (moving the power that the Taliban gets from drugs and money out of their control) be written? Which interests would you tap to what end, and how?

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