West urged to rethink opium policy
LONDON (Reuters) - Western countries should buy opium from Afghanistan and use it for medicinal purposes rather than soldiering on in a futile bid to destroy the poppy crop, a think-tank specialising in drugs policy said on Monday.
Western powers are wasting millions of dollars trying to stamp out the illegal opium trade, international think-tank The Senlis Council said. Instead, they should develop a licensing system to allow Afghans to sell opium legally for use in painkillers like morphine and codeine.
"It is a pipe dream to believe that the goal of the reconstruction of Afghanistan will be achieved by using force against Afghan poppy farmers," Senlis executive director Emmanuel Reinhert said.
"It is totally unrealistic to even attempt to eliminate the crop which accounts for as much as 60 percent of the country's economy."
Afghanistan is by far the world's biggest source of illicit opium and its refined product heroin, accounting for about 87 percent of global supply.
Production has risen to record levels since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Last year, a United Nations report said if nothing was done, Afghanistan could turn into a lawless "narco-state" run by drug cartels.
President Hamid Karzai has vowed to wipe out poppy production but has admitted it could take up to 10 years.
In the meantime, Western countries are ploughing millions of dollars into anti-drugs projects, many designed to persuade local farmers to swap lucrative poppies for other crops.
Senlis, unveiling findings from the first stage of its feasibility study into opium licensing, said there was a ready market for at least part of Afghanistan's huge opium crop, which climbed to around 4,100 tonnes last year.
It could help make morphine, codeine and thebaine, all used in painkillers.
At the moment, opium is produced legally in several countries -- including India, Turkey, Australia and France -- for use in medicine.
However, Senlis says more is needed.
Three-quarters of the world's morphine is used in just seven developing countries. If more were available, the price of painkillers would fall, the think-tank says.
It said there was also a huge untapped market for opium-based painkillers in developing countries, where they could be used as they are in the West -- to alleviate pain caused by cancer, heart attacks and surgery.
Senlis called on Britain, which has led counter-narcotics operations in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion, to reconsider what it said was a deeply misguided policy of crop eradication.
"Vast sums of the British public's money have been spent since 2001 on failing policies," Reinhert said.