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Logo of bmjThis ArticleThe BMJ
BMJ. 2007 June 30; 334(7608): 1343.
PMCID: PMC1906640

Afghan farmers should be licensed to grow poppies for morphine, Senlis Council says

Poppy eradication programmes in Afghanistan are failing to halt heroin production and are driving farmers into the arms of the Taliban, says a report released this week. It urges NATO and the Afghan government to license poppy cultivation for the production of opiate medicines.

The report comes from the Senlis Council, an international foreign policy think tank that focuses on counter-narcotics policy. The group has offices in Kabul and field offices in Helmand and Kandahar provinces.

Norine MacDonald, president of the council, called for a halt to chemical spraying operations planned for the next planting season. “There should be no crop eradication, manual or chemical, until the poverty stricken farmers have other means to feed their families,” said Ms MacDonald, who lives and works in Afghanistan.

The council released a technical dossier on its “poppy for medicine” initiative, which calls for the crop to be transformed into morphine in the communities where it is grown, for sale on the international market.

Total poppy production in Afghanistan increased by 49% in 2006. The amount of land under poppy cultivation is now 20 times greater than in 2001, and the country now accounts for 90% of the global opium supply.

“Eradication has been a failure,” Romesh Bhattacharji, India's former narcotics commissioner, said at the council's presentation. “Licensing is the only alternative.”

The council argues that there is a global shortage of opiate based painkillers, as 80% of the world's population consumes only 5% of these drugs, owing to the poor provision of treatments in developing countries. The International Narcotics Control Board, however, maintains that there is a surplus, saying that there is no unmet market demand.

Afghanistan could benefit from India's experience in the field, said Mr Bhattacharji. He said that morphine is far cheaper in India—where it is made from legally grown local poppies—than it is in developing countries that must import the drug.

India has scaled back its licensed poppy programmes in some states, he conceded, after investigations showed that as much as 20% were being diverted to the illicit market. “But in Afghanistan the rate of diversion is 100%.” Indian states that have cut their legal production have seen a rise in illicit production, he added.

NATO commanders worry that poppy eradication will alienate farmers, but they also believe that the heroin trade is providing vital financial support to the Taliban.

Farid Popal, first political secretary at the Afghan embassy in London, said that the Afghan government is strongly in favour of eradication. “The countries with licensed poppy cultivation—like Turkey, India, Canada—cannot be compared to Afghanistan in terms of security, the rule of law, tribalism. If you give a licence to one village in the southern provinces you are giving it to a whole tribe. I've met the Senlis Council people and studied their proposal, and it's just not workable.”

Emmanuel Reinert, the council's executive director, said, “Our field research indicates that a village based poppy for medicine project is feasible. But the only way to find out if it really works is to test it in carefully selected villages in Kandahar and Helmand. We are willing to undertake such a pilot project and to share the research findings and expertise with the international community.”

Articles from The BMJ are provided here courtesy of BMJ Publishing Group