Careful what you wish for

Crop substitution may or may not be a better way of shrinking the poppy crop than crop eradication; they’re likely to be about equally unsuccessful. But in this case, failure is feature, not a bug: smaller crops mean higher prices and higher total illicit revenues.

Instead of threatening Afghan farmers who grow poppies with having their crops eradicated, the new US/UK plan is to offer them money in various forms in return for not growing poppies. If that worked, it would produce the desired result – a smaller total poppy crop – by helping farmers rather than damaging them. That sounds like an improvement.

But my colleague Jon Caulkins points out that the desired result isn’t, in fact, desirable. A smaller poppy crop means higher opium prices, which won’t much inconvenience heroin refiners, since the price of opium is a small part of the price of heroin. Refiners’ demand for opium is relatively inelastic: the price goes up, in percentage terms, much more than the quantity purchased goes down. So a smaller crop means more total dollars in illicit transactions. And it’s the dollars, not the kilos, that contribute to the security problem in Afghanistan.

The best outcome would be to make farmers better off – for example, by “just handing them cash,” as a “senior U.S. military official” dismissively put it to Karen DeParle – without accomplishing the purported goal of the program in the form of a smaller poppy crop.

Yes, it’s important to have metrics of success. It’s more important to choose the right metrics.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: