The (yawn) Afghan poppy eradication program

No, it doesn’t matter a damn, one way or the other. We need the Karzai government to succeed, and if it can succeed better by letting the poppy-growers alone than by cracking down on them, that’s what we should want it to do.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai criticized U.S. maltreatment of prisoners in Afghanistan and demanded control over the prisoners and over U.S. military operations.

Immediately thereafter, the State Department leaked a week-old report criticizing Karzai by name for not cracking down on poppy-growing.

Coincidence? Or retaliation, and a warning to Karzai not to get too frisky (as PBD puts it, “the horse’s head”)? Decide for yourself.

But recall that the “Northern Alliance” that we — quite properly — backed against the Taliban was basically a trade group of heroin traffickers.

One question not asked in the NY Times story is how much it matters to the drug problem in the U.S. whether the Afghan government cracks down on poppy-growing or not. As someone who has spent a quarter of a century studying drug abuse and its control, I can assure you that the answer to that unasked question is: “Damned little.”

Raw opium isn’t scarce, relative either to heroin demand or to the capacity of the world’s heroin-trafficking networks. The cost of the opium that goes into making a $10 bag of heroin is about a dime.

Moreover, the products made from Afghan poppies stay almost entirely in the Old World; our heroin comes mostly from Colombia (mostly via Mexico) and Southeast Asia (mostly via Hong Kong).

We should keep our eye on the main chance. If post-Taliban Afghanistan works, that’s good for us. If it breaks down, that’s bad for us.

So, from a U.S. perspective, the optimal amount of poppy eradication in Afghanistan is whatever amount is most likely to lead to good outcomes in Afghanistan.

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: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com