Sunday, May 27, 2012

Afghanistan: The latest news on opium is quite old

The New York Times has a front page column one story on the opium situation in Afghanistan. The news is not news -- the situation is bad and likely to get worse.

Drought and blight on the crop have devastated the latest harvest and thus the price to the farmer has increased 50 percent over last year! Farmers are devastated by smaller harvests, but planning to grow larger crops as soon as they can. Withdrawal of NATO and US forces means a big hit to the legitimate economy. Western-led eradication efforts have generated hostility to the central government and built support for the Taliban, and have been cut back.

Anyone with any long-term perspective recognizes that even after spending $US 6 BILLION on anti-opium efforts in Afghanistan, nothing fundamental has been accomplished.

All the well-intentioned efforts run into the simple economic fact: success in reducing supply through eradication or enforcement drives up the price and increases the reward for engaging in the activity. With an otherwise shaky economy, being in the opium business is a good bet. Or as one Afghan quoted in the article says, opium is like gold.

Eventually, legalization of this economy is the only resolution. This may require permits and quotas, but regulation with appropriate enforcement, as challenging as it will continue to be in a country with a limited tradition with rule of law, offers the best chance to bring about a control that minimizes violence, corruption, and subversion by enemies of the state.

Enforcement in a regulated environment is completely different from enforcement in a prohibition environment. In the regulation context, those who have licenses and obey have an interest in enforcement against those who operate without valuable licenses or who operate without obedience to the regulations. Any system of enforcement depends upon those subject to the roles granting legitimacy and respect to the enforcers. In the prohibition environment, there are no rules to obey; there is no advantage to obedience to the rule of law. As everyone who has ever competed knows, all players want the rules enforced fairly and equally. How does one's skill or hard work preparing for and engaging in an athletic contest get rewarded if everyone believes the rules don't matter and the referees or umpires are incompetent or dishonest? When one is competing in business, only criminals don't want everybody to have to follow the law.

Eventually a system of regulation of opium production will have to be extended from the handful of nations that produce opium for refinement into pharmaceutical opiates for narrowly defined "medical" purposes to a larger number of nations and for purposes that at least include maintenance as a legitimate medical purpose.

Naturally, this legalization can only be in the context of a legalized global commerce and a legalized market and culture of consumption. Those are not simple challenges to overcome, but are at least more likely to reduce the social and personal costs of addiction than the current pathologies that are aggravated by prohibition. No one should be under the illusion that there is a magic solution to the tragedy of addiction. But at least we can stop enriching transnational organized crime groups, local gangs and filling local criminal justice systems with drug users.

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