Source: The Independent
Date: 1 April 2007

Opium for the people: Extraordinary move to legalise poppy crops

The 'IoS' can reveal Tony Blair is considering calls to legalise poppy production in the Taliban's backyard. The plan could cut medical shortages of opiates worldwide, curb smuggling - and hit the insurgents.

opium poppy growing in Afghanistan

By Francis Elliott

The buds of millions of poppy flowers are swelling across Afghanistan. In the far southern provinces bordering Iran, the harvest will start later this month. By mid- May the fields around British military camps in Helmand will be ringing to the sound of scythes, rather than gunfire.

And this year's opium harvest will almost certainly be the largest ever. In the five years since the overthrow of the Taliban regime, land under cultivation for poppy has grown from 8,000 to 165,000 hectares.

The US wants to step up eradication programmes, crop-spraying from the air. But, desperate to win "hearts and minds" in Afghanistan and protect British troops, Tony Blair is on the brink of a U-turn that will set him on a collision course with President George Bush.

The Prime Minister has ordered a review of his counter-narcotics strategy - including the possibility of legalising some poppy production - after an extraordinary meeting with a Tory MP on Wednesday, The Independent on Sunday has learnt. Tobias Ellwood, a backbencher elected less than two years ago, has apparently succeeded where ministers and officials have failed in leading Mr Blair to consider a hugely significant switch in policy.

Supporters of the measure say it would not only curb an illegal drugs trade which supplies 80 per cent of the heroin on Britain's streets, but would hit the Taliban insurgency and help save the lives of British troops. Much of the legally produced drug could be used to alleviate a shortage of opiates for medicinal use in Britain and beyond, they say.

A Downing Street spokesman confirmed last night that Mr Blair is now considering whether to back a pilot project that would allow some farmers to produce and sell their crops legally to drugs companies. His change of heart has surprised the Foreign Office, which recently denied that licit poppy production was being considered. A freedom of information request has revealed that the Government looked carefully at proposals to buy up Afghanistan's poppy crop as early as 2000, under the Taliban. The removal of that regime - justified to both US and British voters partly in terms of a victory in the "war on drugs" - has made it politically difficult to financially reward poppy farmers.

But the links between drug warlords, terrorism and the Taliban are clear. Traffickers hold poor farmers in a form of bondage through the supply of credit, paid back in opium. Many of those fighting British troops during the winter months will return to their villages to harvest poppy crops in the spring and summer. The traffickers' huge profits help to fund the fight against Nato troops.

The White House has consistently rejected the idea that opium could help to solve Afghanistan's chronic poverty. But there are clear signs of a shift in international opinion towards allowing a legal trade. Pervez Musharraf, the President of Pakistan, has said that "buying the crop is an idea we could explore". He added: "We would need money from the US or the UN. But we could buy the whole crop and destroy it. In that way the poor growers would not suffer."

The Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, who has opposed the idea in the past, is said privately to have changed his mind - as long as the international community takes on any licensing scheme.

Campaigners who have been agitating for the change in policy point out that the opium, rather than being destroyed, could alleviate a worldwide shortage of medicinal opiates. Ministers recently admitted that the NHS is running short of diamorphine and codeine. Many developing countries, particularly in Africa, do not have adequate stocks of basic pain relief; campaigners refer to a "global pain crisis".

Britain leads the £1bn-a-year international operation to wipe out poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. This country alone has spent almost £200m over the past four years on efforts to eradicate poppy fields and persuade farmers to grow other crops.

Meanwhile, in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold, poppy production rose 169 per cent last year alone, according to official UN figures. Some 400,000 Afghans are thought to be engaged in the trade, which dwarfs the country's official GDP. Last year Afghanistan produced 92 per cent of the world's opium, worth almost $3bn. Counter-narcotic operations by the Afghan government are considered at best ineffective and at worst corrupt, as local politicians order the destruction of rival crops and the protection of their own. Only 43,000 acres of poppy were destroyed last year.

Britain has resisted US pressure to spray poppies from the air, fearing a widespread destruction of poor farmers' livelihoods would simply drive more of them into the hands of the Taliban. Last year, troops stationed in Helmand were plunged into some of the fiercest fighting experienced by British soldiers since the Korean War, despite carefully avoiding destroying local poppy crops.

Opponents of the proposal to buy up crops or license growers claim that it could simply drive up the price of opium, making it yet more attractive to farmers. The US State Department doubts that the Afghan government can be trusted to keep legally produced narcotics separate from the illegal product. While Turkey diverted production successfully from the black market to legitimate medicinal supplies, Afghanistan, it says, has neither the infrastructure nor the security to make legal poppy production economically viable or safe.

Efforts to foster alternative crops could also be at risk. Britain, with others, has ploughed tens of millions of pounds into persuading farmers to grow pomegranates, potatoes and mint.

But Mr Ellwood, a former officer in the Royal Green Jackets and now MP for Bournemouth East, became convinced of the need for a pilot project to test the idea of licit production on one of his frequent trips to Afghanistan. He believes it would be possible to use the profits from the trade to build up the infrastructure and, once controlled by the government rather than the drug barons, farmers could gradually be weaned off poppies and on to alternative cash crops.

He delivered a presentation to the Prime Minister and Foreign Office officials on Wednesday, suggesting an intermediaryco-ordinate the efforts of government agencies and NGOs. He proposed that Britain oversee a pilot project in Helmand.

A spokesman for No 10 said that Mr Blair agreed to consider the idea, and would reply before Easter, adding: "The Prime Minister did note there were doubts about the capacity of the Afghan government in this regard."

Mr Ellwood said: "It is ironic that the world, including Britain, experiences a shortage of diamorphine and codeine, but we choose to prevent the fourth poorest country in the world from producing it. Instead we are destroying the crops, alienating communities who then seek support from the Taliban. Five years since the invasion, peace remains a distant hope. Until the issue of poppy crops is solved, the fragile umbrella of security will never be strong enough for long-term reconstruction and development initiatives to take root."

The precious harvest that can kill or cure

Every year tens of thousands more hectares of Afghanistan are given over to illegal poppy production. President Hamid Karzai has called the opium trade his country's 'cancer'. This year's harvest starts within weeks.

Tony Blair has become the latest figure to consider whether it is possible to divert the raw product grown in fields throughout Afghanistan to legal outlets.

The legal route

Village elders are given responsibility for ensuring that licensed farmers grow only enough poppies to fulfil their yearly quotas and also grow other, edible crops.

Farmers are allowed only to supply poppy straw, the basic ingredient of opium, which is then taken to local, regulated plants to make the narcotic.

Legitimate drugs firms buy the licensed opium from Afghanistan and make medical opiates to alleviate the pain of patients in hospitals all over the world.

The illegal route

Opium traders hold farmers in virtual bondage through the supply of huge loans that enable families to survive through the winter, but in summer they are paid in opium.

Farmers make their own opium, which is handed to traders. They pass it up the chain of command to drugs warlords who process it into heroin.

After being trafficked through Iran and the Balkans, the Afghan heroin hits the streets - and the veins of Britain's addicts - for about £50 a gram.

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