According to the UN, opium produced in Afghanistan was worth about $600 million at the farm gate in the last two years, according to the news, more this year: let’s say $700m allowing for more production at lower prices. This is most of the opium in the world, by far. Farmers grow it to make a living, on the whole because they have no better or comparable option. It’s been suggested to legalize this market and divert the crop into medicine (morphine) but that idea seems to be stalled, and it risks diversion and leakage into domestic and export illegal channels.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are expected to cost the US $110 thousand million next year. Wouldn’t less than one percent of this be well spent paying Afghan farmers the value of their opium crop, on condition that they don’t grow it–and allowing them to try carrots and cabbage without risking their families’ livelihoods? We try to eradicate it now, leaving the farmers with no secure income, a program that operates against every possible resistance from the regulated parties, which means the program is very expensive. In 2005, we spent, coincidentally, about $700 million on eradication with negative results. It should be a lot easier to assure compliance with a program that doesn’t threaten to put whole villages into poverty, especially if we take a page from David Kennedy’s book and run the program on a village-by-village basis, so neighbors have reason to keep an eye on each other to be sure someone doesn’t ruin it for everyone.
Opium and its refined derivative, heroin, are a lot like pollutants of the built environment of commerce and culture; opium is also an agricultural crop. We regularly pay people not to grow corn, and not to put sulfur into the air (tradeable sulfur permits are regularly bought by environmental groups and not exercised). Admittedly, there’s a serious risk of inducing claims beyond the real likelihood of cultivation, so a program like this could involve a lot of overpayment–but this overpayment would be going to people with an annual per capita income in the hundreds, where we’re anxious to win over hearts and minds.