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13 August 2009updated 24 Sep 2015 11:01am

The opium war rages on

Mike Trace highlights a dangerous drug problem

By Mike Trace

In late 2001, I was involved in overseeing the UK’s drug dependence treatment system, and was called in by No 10 to consider the impact that a successful campaign in Afghanistan would have on the UK as supplies of heroin to British addicts dried up. The government’s thinking was that a military presence in the poppy-growing areas would quickly facilitate the control and eradication of opium crops, leading to a global drought of processed heroin, which in turn would lead to a surge in the number of addicts seeking treatment as their supply disappeared.

We knew even then that this was an unlikely scenario, not least because addicts respond to the loss of their preferred drug primarily by switching to others, rather than changing their patterns of behaviour. Nevertheless, it does show that drug control figured highly in the early thinking around the invasion of Afghanistan.

Tony Blair stated in his speech to the 2001 Labour Party conference that narcotics were “another part of their regime that we should seek to destroy”. Once the invasion was completed, however, the government started to manage expectations, downgrading opium eradication to a side benefit of creating a safe and democratic state.

In the longer term, it was thought, if we could help the Afghan government establish the rule of law in opium-growing areas and provide poppy farmers with meaningful alternative incomes, the flow of heroin to the west would gradually cease. The debate then turned to what would be the best way to achieve this: the Bush administration favoured a forced eradication strategy (similar to the one that had failed over many years to stem coca cultivation in Colombia), while European governments focused on “hearts and minds” – providing security and social and economic development for farmers and the urban poor.

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Neither view clearly prevailed, and while the Nato allies have tried to implement a mixed strategy, the situation on the ground has developed into the worst of all worlds. The flow of heroin from Afghanistan (measured by area of cultivation or potential production) has doubled since the invasion and continues to feed 90 per cent of the global market. There has been no dip in heroin availability in any part of the world. The criminal groups that control the opium market continue to make hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the trade, at least some of which funds the Taliban. And Afghan peasant farmers continue to have little alternative to growing opium for sale at subsistence prices.

As with all commodity markets, the power sits with those who control the trade, and this is particularly so when economic power is allied with intimidation, violence and corruption. Focusing on eradicating the crops of peasant farmers has been a flawed strategy from day one – as long as the drug lords can continue to make their profits, they will ensure that the raw material is grown somewhere. Recognition of this reality is emerging in the US administration, with its special envoy Richard Holbrooke acknowledging the need to undermine the power of organised-crime groups with financial and operational links to the Taliban.

This would seem to herald the arrival of a more realistic strategy to tackle the Afghan drug market. But given the inexorable laws of supply and demand, don’t expect success in that endeavour to lead to heroin shortages in consumer markets. I cannot see how existing strategies in Afghanistan can ever deliver on drug policy objectives.

Mike Trace is chairman of the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), and was formerly deputy drug “tsar” in the Blair administration

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