Why don’t we just buy it?

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.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

5 thoughts on “Why don’t we just buy it?”

  1. This is far too sensible to be put into practice.
    The vehement hostility toward certain drugs is amazing, especially in a country that practically venerates alcohol abuse. The "lovable drunk"is a long time American icon.
    Maybe more attention should go into exploring and explaining the bias. That might open doors for anti-drug abuse policies that actually work.

  2. I agree with the general tenor – but there is one real problem you have to deal with. It is very tempting for anyone in a "be paid not to grow it" program to accept the money and still grow it, and thus be paid twice. For example in Africa paying people not to kill Giraffes ran into this very phenomena. Probably a better way is simply to allow cultivation but buy 100% of the crop and destroy any of it that can't be coverted into morphine or other useful products.
    Alternatively what you might do is buy other crops at an inflated prices that matches or exceeds profits which can be made from cultivating opium poppies.

  3. Gar Lipow is right but doesn't go far enough. The buyers of opium tend to be men with guns. They would not be happy if their suppliers suddenly decided to stop producing the raw material of their trade. For opium farmers, the only safe thing to do would be to take the government's money and grow the crop anyway.

  4. Just playing Devil's Advocate here, trying to predict the worsse possible scenario: If we bought the opium before anyone else could, we'd have to buy it at any price they set, yes? The 700,000,000 figure is the street price; with a new large buyer with very different needs, the price could change dramatically. Also, with a guaranteed, wealthy buyer, it makes a lot of economic sense to expand production, so there'd be a lot more money and effort poured into producing more opium, both in Afghanistan and other countries; we certainly couldn't stop buying it then, since the opium problem would be worse than when we started. We'd be locked into a deal with the opium producers, with no effective way out, even if it turns out to be a horrible deal.
    Somewhat off-topic: does any know how one destroys large amounts of opium safely, without contaminating the surrounding area? I assume there is a way, since the police must have to do so regularly.

  5. But why is Afghanistan the dominant producer? Because its soil is uniquely well-suited for growing opium?
    I suspect that the comparative advantage involved lies in social and political conditions, rather than the soil. So buy up the Afghan opium and other places will take up production for export. The price will be a bit higher, probably, but you're not going to make much of a dent, I think.
    If we were so inclined we could call this the "lump of opium" fallacy.

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