After the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said: “When we were in power before there was no production of drugs.”
He said “we will bring opium cultivation to zero again” and that there would be no smuggling.
The UN report in May 2001 “observed the near-total success of the ban in eliminating poppy cultivation in Taliban controlled areas”.
Following the Taliban’s ban on opium poppy farming, there was a noticeable dip in opium and heroin seizures globally in 2001 and 2002.
Opium poppy plants can be refined to form the basis for several highly addictive drugs, including heroin.
Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of opium, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Its opium harvest accounts for more than 80% of the world’s supply.
In 2018 the UNODC estimated opium production contributed up to 11% of the country’s economy.
AISSC wants to recommend the Taliban government of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the licensing of opium for medical purposes in Afghanistan would reduce some of the negative effects of unmitigated illicit drug production. It would also eliminate several important negative side-effects of standard counter-narcotics policies. However, serious legal, political, economic, efficiency, and security obstacles to launching such a licensing scheme persist in Afghanistan under current circumstances.
These obstacles would have to be overcome for the licensing policy to become viable. Even if instituted, the licensing scheme would not be a panacea, and some serious problems posed by large-scale opium cultivation would persist. Because licensing absorbing only a part of the illicit economy could easily generate new problems, including ethnic and tribal tension, licensing should only be undertaken once the Taliban government is fully established, other obstacles to licensing have been overcome, and licensing could be implemented on a country-wide scale.
The licensing of opium cultivation for the purpose of medical analgesics promises to reduce the intensity of the primary negative effects of unmitigated cultivation as well as the dangerous negative side-effects of many standard counter-narcotics policies.
AISSC would like to highlight the socio-economic advantages of Opium Licensing:
Addressing Social Problems
- The licensing of opium cultivation could reduce the amount of Afghan opium supplying the illicit drug trades. The opium bought by the state for medical opiates would not enter the Afghan drug trade. However, how much opium would actually be prevented from reaching the illegal trade would be highly contingent on the extent of the area licensed and the operational demand for Afghan medical opiates.
- Substantially reducing the area of illicit cultivation and the number of people participating in the illegal opium economy as a result of licensing would decrease the threats to rule of law and enhance a culture of legality, thus strengthening the authority of the state.
Addressing Security Problems
- A substantial reduction in the opium economy in Afghanistan would eliminate a portion of the terror groups’ income. The actual extent of financial losses would, however, be highly contingent on the terror organizations’ access to stocks for the illicit drug trade and another fundraising adaptability.
- Since the state would no longer have to eliminate the population’s livelihood in the licensed areas (as the current government-sanctioned eradication programs do), the alienation of the population from the government would be reduced and the legitimacy of the state would be enhanced. Conversely, the political support of current rogue politicians, government officials, and tribal elites who derive political capital from (tacitly) sponsoring the illicit economy would be reduced, once again enhancing the relative power and authority of the state.
- Afghanistan’s state capacity would also be enhanced as the state would derive income from taxing licensed cultivation and the processing of opium into medical analgesics.
- Corruption pressure on the police and other law enforcement agencies would be somewhat reduced as they would no longer have to suppress production in the licensed areas. The actual decrease in corruption pressures would, however, be highly contingent on the actual size of the area licensed and the persistence of an illegal economy. But perhaps most importantly, the population in the licensed areas would be given a chance to see the police not as an antagonistic enemy, but as a necessary and positive representative of the state.
Addressing Political Problems
- The political relations between the Afghan government and many other countries and international organizations would improve, all the more as illicit activity diminished.
- However, if licensing in Afghanistan encroached on the existing legal markets for opiates of Australia, Turkey, and India (the largest producers) by redistributing the existing licit market instead of developing a large new market, substantial tensions could develop between Afghanistan and these countries and between the international sponsors of licensing in Afghanistan and these countries. (Tensions between India and Afghanistan would be welcome in Pakistan, but Pakistan may also be resentful of its being deprived of a license for medical opiates in the 1970s).
Addressing Economic Problems
- The state would be able to provide employment to the population in the licensed areas and obtain potential large income from the highly profitable business of producing pharmaceuticals, especially if Afghanistan developed the capacity not simply to cultivate opium but to transform it into actual prescription drugs.
- The consumption of durables, the construction boom, and other small and large-business multiplier effects would continue.
- The state would be better able to absorb money generated by the opium economy.
Addressing Problems of Eradication
- The extent of such crucial benefits of licensing for both security improvements and counterdrug effort, however, would be highly contingent on the extent of the licensed production.
- Licensing (especially if implemented on a large scale) would also eliminate other social instability related to eradication, such as strikes and uprisings.
The excerpts of this policy recommendations are taken and based on ‘The Brookings Institution’ 2016 policy paper on opium licensing in Afghanistan.
Written by Hon’ Executive Board Member of AISSC – Syed Shah Fahad Hussain
AISSC reserves all the rights for reprinting & republishing