When more is better

Observations on heroin supply

Afghanistan's heroin poppy crop looks like a bumper one this year: up 40 per cent on a very successful 2003, say some reports. Because Afghanistan supplies over 90 per cent of Britain's heroin, the Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell went there this summer to try to get the Afghan and US governments to do more about stopping opium production. After all, right up to the eve of action, UK ministers gave reducing supply as one reason for the 2001 war. Since the Taliban fell, the crop has in fact vastly increased. The likely result is a fall in the street price of heroin.

But what are the consequences? As the National Criminal Intelligence Squad report put it last year, with prim understatement: "Heroin users often find it difficult to fund their drugs purchases from legitimate income." The squad estimates that as much as 70 per cent of property crime in some cities is drug-related. So it is suggestive that vehicle and property crime fell steadily through the 1990s, as the street price of heroin fell from £90 a gram to £63. It's doubtful that many addicts write up a weekly budget to plan their heroin purchases. When the price goes up, so does their need for money. It is the addiction that is non-negotiable.

We could do with more research on this - but people seldom commission questionnaires when they don't want to know the answers. What persists instead is the unexamined idea that it would be pos- sible to stop drugs coming into Britain by stopping production overseas and importation. Britain consumes an estimated 30 tonnes of heroin a year. This would fit comfortably into a single mid-sized truck. We cannot keep drugs out of our prisons. How can we possibly keep that amount out of our islands?

Rammell failed to get production cut. Would we really be in a better position if he had succeeded? The more we succeed in reducing production, the more the higher prices motivate farmers and traffickers; and the more crime we can expect from addicts. Like a Chinese finger trap, the further you manage to pull out, the tighter the trap gets around you.

So it may even be a good thing that Rammell didn't stop Afghanistan's bumper harvest. That is not an argument for the status quo. The illegal market in drugs offers farmers in the developing world a wicked choice between, on the one hand, getting money and access to credit in return for throwing their lot in with criminals and, on the other, bare subsistence. This bleak form of Hobson's choice, left unchecked, shows the unregulated global marketplace in its worst light.

Meanwhile, addicts, and their families, continue to suffer.