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Efforts to Reduce Afghanistan’s Illegal Opium Trade
As the producer of 93% of the world’s opium, Afghanistan presents significant challenges to the international community.1 US and UK forces have tried various methods to reduce poppy cultivation and disrupt heroin trade in Afghanistan. Another method for alleviating Afghanistan’s opium problem has been proposed, which includes allowing Afghans to legally cultivate poppies for medicinal use.Poppies (Papaver somniferum, Papaveraceae) have been used throughout the ages for medicinal and recreational purposes. The plant was mentioned in some of the earliest records of human civilization, including the Ebers Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian medical text written in about 1550 BCE.2 Opium has been used for such purposes as pain-relief, to induce sleep, and to generate feelings of euphoria. Several of the known alkaloids of opium have been isolated for medical use, including the widely-used pain-reliever morphine and cough-suppressant codeine. The dangerous and highly addictive drug heroin is a derivative of the opium alkaloid morphine.

Opium farming and trade has been a major element of the culture and economy of some areas of Afghanistan.1 Because this opium is typically trafficked as heroin and its trade has been a main source of funding for the Taliban, efforts have been made in recent years to stop Afghanistan’s poppy cultivation.

The US government initially supported a policy of poppy eradication, but this typically harmed small farmers rather than powerful land owners, drug dealers, and the Taliban.3,4 In mid-2009, the US government announced that it would shift away from eradication and instead focus on disrupting opium dealers, processors, and refineries. Increased counter-narcotics efforts by military operations in the summer of 2009 led to the destruction of hundreds of tons of poppy seeds, opium, and heroin in southern Afghanistan.4 Government corruption in Afghanistan, however, may ultimately pose some challenges to this new US-led policy against Afghan drug trafficking.3

Some farmers have been forced or encouraged to replace their poppy fields with alternative crops.1 In some cases, this practice has led to poverty for Afghan farmers and communities, as the replacement crops are often more difficult to grow and do not sell for nearly as much money as poppies.

One replacement crop that has been successful for some Afghan farmers, however, is saffron (Crocus sativus, Iridaceae)—the world’s most expensive spice.5,6 Farmers in some provinces of Afghanistan—particularly in Herat—have reportedly received support from the Afghan government, the US Agency for International Development, and the Italian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team to begin cultivating saffron in place of poppies. According to recent news articles, cultivation of this plant has proven extremely profitable, and both production of and demand for Afghan saffron has been rising in recent years. An article published in the San Francisco Chronicle in March of 2009 noted that the price of Afghan saffron has risen to an average of $1,360 per pound, and that this is roughly 38 times what poppy farmers in southern Afghanistan earn.6 Saffron is an ingredient in fabric dyes and perfumes, and it has also been used medicinally. Researchers in Iran have demonstrated promising applications for saffron in treatment of mild-to-moderate depression and premenstrual problems in women.7,8

A potential plan for reducing opium trafficking in Afghanistan has also been proposed by the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS). Since 2005, ICOS has researched and promoted the idea of a “Poppy for Medicine” project in Afghanistan. Under this project model, Afghan farmers would legally cultivate poppies for local transformation into pharmaceutical-grade morphine, which could be sold to foreign governments at a relatively low cost. Such a project would serve as a counter-narcotics initiative while also contributing to Afghanistan’s economic diversification and the global need for pain medicines.

Similar projects have previously been introduced in Turkey and India. According to Jorrit Kamminga, senior policy analyst for ICOS, the experiences of those 2 countries were different but could be adapted to the unique situation of Afghanistan (oral communication, August 17, 2009).

Kamminga stated that the Poppy for Medicine project has already garnered support within Afghanistan and in countries interested in purchasing low-cost morphine, but ICOS has not yet been able to convince the US and UK governments to initiate the project. Because Afghanistan’s government runs entirely on foreign assistance, and the country’s counter-narcotics policies are directed by the United States and United Kingdom, the project would require US and UK approval. However, Kamminga stated that he hopes that US and UK government leaders will be more amenable to the idea of backing the Poppy for Medicine project in the near future.

“We’ve wasted 6 years and millions of dollars on a counter-narcotics policy that doesn’t work,” said Kamminga, referring to the practice of eradication. “We should at least try this and, if it doesn’t work, move on and find other suitable alternatives for the short to medium term.”

Kamminga stated that many countries are likely to be interested in importing morphine from Afghanistan, simply because they currently do not have enough. “There are vast amounts of unmet needs around the world. The World Health Organization has confirmed that 80% of the world’s population does not have access to painkilling medicines like morphine.”

He added that Afghanistan itself does not even have a sufficient supply of morphine. “It’s ironic, since they produce 93% of the world’s opium but are not able to produce enough painkilling medication for themselves.”

In September 2009, The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released a report claiming that opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has gone down by 22%, that the number of poppy-free provinces has increased from 18 to 20, and that the price of opium has reached a 10-year low.9 However, according to an article from the BBC, analysts have suggested that the fall in opium production may simply be a temporary tactic by suppliers to drive prices back up.10 The UN report urged the international community to maintain progress in Afghanistan. It further noted that even though controlling drugs in Afghanistan will not solve all of the country’s problems, the country’s problems cannot be solved without controlling drugs.9

–Courtney CavaliereReferences
  1. Callimachi R. No more opium, no more money for Afghan villagers. Associated Press; August 3, 2009.
  2. Lee P. Opium Culture: The Art and Ritual of the Chinese Tradition. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press; 2006.
  3. Bowman T. US drug agents target Afghan poppy pushers. National Public Radio. July 29, 2009. Available at: php?storyId=111174481. Accessed September 4, 2009.
  4. 50 drug barons on US target list in Afghanistan. Associated Press; August 10, 2009.
  5. Faizi F. Afghan farmers ditch opium for saffron. Asia Times; June 25, 2009. Available at: Accessed August 4, 2009.
  6. Palmer J. Saffron uproots poppies on farms in Afghanistan. San Francisco Chronicle; March 1, 2009;A8.
  7. Moshiri E, Basti A, Noorbala A, Jamshidi A, Hesameddin Abassi S, Akhondzadeh S. Crocus sativus L. (petal) in the treatment of mild-to-moderate depression: a double-blind, randomized and placebo-controlled trial. Phytomedicine. 2006;13(9-10):607-611.
  8. Minigh J. Saffron in the treatment of premenstrual syndrome. HerbalGram. 2008;78:33.
  9. Afghanistan Opium Survey 2009 Summary Findings. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. September 2009. Available at: Accessed September 10, 2009.
  10. ‘Sharp drop’ in Afghan opium crop. BBC News; September 2, 2009. Available at: Accessed September 2, 2009.