" The arms the Taliban are buying today are paid for with the lives of young British people buying their drugs on British streets. That is another part of their regime we should seek to destroy"
Tony Blair (party conference speech 2.10.01)
The link between the illegal drug profits and terrorism has been brought into stark relief by the events of September the11th. The so-called "war on drugs" has become inexorably linked with the new "war on terrorism". This may have long term ramifications on how we attempt to manage the UK and international drugs problem, and also how the conflict in Afganistan and the surrounding regions may be resolved.
This briefing will examine the issues raised by the recent events, attempt to put them in context and consider the various possible ways forward.
Illegal drug production - Background
The global illegal drug market is estimated by Interpol to be worth £300 billion a year, around 8% of total world trade, putting it in the world's top three traded goods (along with oil and arms). The illegal drugs market is in effect completely deregulated, with no tax paid, and none of the controls over production and supply that govern legally produced drugs and medicines.
The fact that demand for certain drugs has continued to rise despite their prohibition, has provided a huge opportunity for illicit markets to develop. The risks carried by those operating in these markets is translated into the high value added to illegal drugs. Correspondingly huge profits can be made from easily cultivated and relatively worthless crops.
Afghan drug production: History
The environmental conditions and socio-political factors of certain regions, such as Afghanistan, lend themselves to large-scale drug crop production. These factors include:
Whilst opium has been grown in Afghanistan for centuries large scale production is a relatively recent phenomenon corresponding to the commercial opportunities opened up by the rapid rise in demand for heroin in Europe. The first period of expansion took place during the 70's when the military agendas of the cold war meant that international (specifically US) efforts to control drug production in central Asia were deprioritiesd. The result was that opium production helping to fund the anti-soviet Mujahideen fighters was essentially left to flourish.
In the 1990's, whilst other forms of farming fell victim to the endless internecine wars, Afghanistan greatly increased its cultivation of opium, with production exploding after the Taliban seized power in 1996. According to the United Nations Drugs Control Programme, in 1989 the country produced nearly 1,200 tonnes but by 1999 opium production had reached over 4000 tonnes, making it the root source of three-quarters of the world's illegal heroin and 90 per cent of Europe's.
The profits from this production accrued to the Taliban in the
form of a 10% tax on the farmers and has been estimated as being
worth $10 million to $30 million according to UN experts. United
States government officials more recently gave
higher estimates of $40 million to $50 million. Either estimate, however, represents a relatively tiny percentage of the billions that the refined heroin is sold for in the west. There is some suggestion that the Taliban have been directly involved in the poppy cultivation and heroin refining but available intelligence on this is poor and the extent can only be guessed at.
The Taliban's poppy cultivation "ban"
In the summer of 2000, in an apparent bid to court international respectability (the international community had never recognised the sovereignty of the regime), the Taliban announced a ban on all poppy production, their leader Mullah Mohammed Omar declaring it 'un-Islamic'.
According to the UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (UNODCCP) production of opium over the next growing season (planting in November, harvest in May/June) fell by as much as 95% to a mere 185 tonnes. According to UN observers cultivation largely shifted to wheat, with the remaining opium production mostly in areas controlled by the Northern Alliance.
This astonishing, and apparently out of the blue, U-turn has inevitably raised suspicions as to the motives behind it. At the time the ban was announced the price of opium was at an all time low, and the ongoing drought meant that production had collapsed relative to previous harvests. There were also massive stockpiles of opium from previous bumper crops, perhaps as much of half of the annual harvest. This has convinced many western analysts that the "ban" was actually a marketing ploy to support the price of opium.
Bradley Hittle, a drug supply analyst at the Office of National Drug Control Policy noted that "There already existed a lot of opium that could be moved to market. That opium increased in value tenfold." U.S. administration drug policy officials have also pointed out that even as the Taliban banned the growing of opium poppies, they permitted the importation of large quantities of acetic anhydride (a key chemical used to convert opium into heroin). Evidence from seizures on Afghan borders and favoured smuggling routes suggests that there was no significant slow down in exports.
None the less, US Secretary of State Colin Powell called the poppy eradication "a decision by the Taliban that we welcome". The move was also heralded by the various UN drug agencies as a success in the ongoing drug war. Soon after the ban, and at least partly in response to it, the US gave $43 million to Afghanistan for humanitarian aid distributed, according to Powell "through international agencies of the United Nations and non-governmental organisations".
Developments since September 11th
Since the atrocities of September the 11th reports suggest that there has been a rush to unload Afghan opium stockpiles on to the market. This increase in supply had the effect of depressing the market price. According to Bradley Hittle "Our most recent intelligence indicates that the price has fallen more than 50 percent . What seems to have happened is that whoever was holding opium at the time of the attacks is trying to sell it as fast as possible."
There are various theories to explain this development. It may be that the Taliban have been cashing in their stockpiles to raise money for military actions, or that Afghan farmers fear that the Taliban regime may soon be defunct and the protection provided for producing opium will disappear. There are also legitimate fears that opium stockpiles will be targeted by US bombing.
This rapid sell off may have prompted some of the wilder speculation about the Taliban "flooding" the west with heroin (see below). To have a crop next year planting for the May/June 2002 harvest should have started in October 2001. It is near impossible to predict what impact the ongoing military action will have on this years planting.
The Bin Laden connection
The strong links between Osama Bin Ladens' al-Quaida network and the Taliban regime are well documented. Less clear is Bin Ladens' association with the drugs trade that the Taliban have overseen since 1996. Whilst there are obvious propaganda benefits in such and association there is only circumstantial evidence to support it.
Testifying before a Government Reform subcommittee examining drug
trafficking and terrorism Drug Enforcement Administration head Asa Hutchinson told the US Congress on Oct 3rd that: "Although the DEA has no direct evidence to confirm that Bin Laden is involved in the drug trade, the sanctuary enjoyed by Bin Laden is based on the Taliban's support for the drug trade, which is a primary source of income in Afghanistan".
William Bach, a State Department director in charge of the region reiterated the point stating that: "While we do not have clear evidence directly linking drug traffickers and terrorists in Afghanistan, the Taliban responsibility is obvious."
Officials have also acknowledged that Bin Laden has independent sources of money and would not need the illegal drug trade to fund terrorist acts. The connection would therefore seem to be primarily an inferred one through his connection to the Taliban. It has, however, been suggested that he may profit from providing his fighters to protect opium shipments, either financially or in terms of securing Taliban support.
According to the June 1997 issue of Geopolitical Drug Dispatch Bin laden accrued much of his wealth from supplying Yemen with khat, a mild stimulant drug, traditionally chewed in its raw plant form. His family has lived in Saudi Arabia for many generations, but have their roots in Yemen. Bin laden apparently used his khat profits to build an armed force of 3-4000 men. Khat is legal in Yemen (and the UK) but is a schedule one drug in the US and also banned in France and Sweden. By 1997, the World Bank estimated that khat accounted for 25% of gross domestic product and employed 16% of the countries 16 million inhabitants.
Drugs, terrorism and propaganda
Undaunted by the paucity of evidence, politicians and pundits, eager to "smash terrorism" are drawing a polemical link between the Osama bin Laden network and illicit drug profits. Associating the Taliban and Bin laden with the "evil drugs trade" has obvious propaganda benefits when it comes to building support potentially unpopular military interventions in Afganistan. The emotive language used in Tony Blair's party conference address being the most high profile UK example.
There has been similar rhetoric from US politicians, with some actually accusing drug users of supporting Bin laden and the Taliban. In reality, according to the DEA, in 1998 65% of US heroin came from Colombia and 17% came from Mexico.
Certain stories have also been given extensive coverage despite being extremely poorly sourced, not to mention lacking all credibility. The most high profile have been the "west to be flooded with heroin" story and a variation featuring "super" heroin of some unspecified nature.
The U.S. News and World Report on Oct 4th reported on "Bin Laden's plan to let loose a plague of potent heroin on the United States and its friends". Sometimes referred to as "tears of Allah", the super heroin plan apparently failed because "It was a chemical dud", as one US official explained. "He wanted a deadly form of the drug and he wanted to get it to the U.S. He wanted to kill." Similar stories were run in papers around the world including the New York Times' and various UK tabloids. The story apparently came to US officials from a "single foreign intelligence source".
This story illustrates both the misunderstandings around heroin production and use and the willingness of respectable media to print unsubstantiated rumours if it strikes the appropriate note during a time of conflict.
A quick Transform reality check:
Five possible ways forward
Now that Taliban have fallen and Bin Laden is on the run, politicians are facing the unpleasant reality that the socio-economic conditions in which opium production thrives in Afganistan are essentially unchanged. Destroying the Taliban and al-Qaida is not the same as destroying the opium production they profited from. Those profits will now simply accrue to whoever fills the power vacuum. In the absence of some other policy initiative, opium production is likely to continue much as before.
1) Chemical and biological crop eradication
Given an unlimited budget and a complete lack of concern for the welfare of indigenous populations, it is possible, in theory at least, that opium production could be eradicated from Afghanistan by arial fumigation.
There would however be enormous costs:
There is research being undertaken to try and produce "biological controls" that could be deployed against the opium poppy. This research, taking place in Tashkent in Uzbeckistan, is being funded by the US, UK and UN Drug Control Program, and has successfully developed fungus that kill poppies when released into the environment. This research has proved highly controversial and attracted widespread criticism that it is, in effect, developing offensive biological weapons. Included in the research have been efforts to mutate the genes of the fungus by exposure to radioactivity in an attempt to develop more virulent strains.
There have been serious doubts about the safety of such pathogens in terms of their impacts on human health and the long term environmental problems they may unleash. The planned use of similar fungal pathogens against coca plants in Colombia has stalled due to these health and environmental concerns. It also seems unlikely that the US or anyone else would want to use pathogenic fungi in the wake of the anthrax panic, when anxieties about biological weapons are so high. (Contact Transform for a more detailed briefing on the UK's role in this fungus research)
The problem with eradication
The illegal drug market is a global phenomenon with production as mobile as the international criminal networks that finance it. This geographical and financial flexibility has meant attempts to curtail international drug production through crop eradication, customs, and police enforcement have invariably failed. Localised successes, such as eliminating production from one region, have merely resulted in increased production elsewhere.
Colombia provides a good example of this phenomenon: coca production (the plant from which cocaine is derived) tripled from 1994 to 1999, despite fumigating over 240,000 hectares of illicit crops with more than two million litres of glyphosate. Similarly, opium production in the 1970's and early 1980's was dominated by Burma, Pakistan and Iran, but since the latter two began to enforce cultivation bans the drop in production has been more than cancelled out by rises in Afghanistan. It is inevitable that even if opium production were eradicated from Afganistan the shortfall would soon be made up elsewhere in Central or South East Asia. The impact on global production and availability of opiates would be marginal and temporary at best.
The international drug market is an example of supply and demand economics at its most basic: If supply contracts, relatively price inelastic demand will push up the street price providing a powerful incentive for new producers to enter the market. In many ways, the harder the crack down, the greater the criminal profits.
2) Customs and international policing
Customs and police interventions have proved equally futile. Only around 10% of international drug shipments are intercepted, and whilst this can make for impressive sounding seizure statistics and photo opportunities, in reality it has had no significant measurable impact on street availability: Heroin and cocaine are cheaper, purer and more available than ever before. The UNODCCP world drug report makes it clear that rising seizures are merely proportional to rising volumes of trafficking.
"I cannot be sure whether we are holding the line, improving (or) reducing. I do not think that we are winning. There are not any reliable measures of either demand or supply for drugs, so we cannot be sure of the overall difference that we make."
Dame Valerie Strachan, Chair of Customs & Excise,
Public Affairs Select Committee, May 1999
Similarly, policing efforts to disrupt criminal markets can have some localised success. Iran, for example, was formerly the primary trafficking route for heroin from Afghanistan to Europe. However, since Iran raised the priority of drug interdiction, seizures soared and routes through central Asia have been revived and new routes developed. So despite the massive increase in seizures in Iran (% of global seizures rising from 9% in 1987/88 to 42% in 1997/98 UNDCP World Drug Report 2000) the volume of heroin arriving in Europe has been unaffected.
High profile successes such as arresting notorious drug barons and breaking up certain cartels are similarly ineffective. New organisations will quickly step in to exploit the void in the market. Arresting one group of violent criminals leaves the stage clear for the next generation to emerge. International drug cartels are frequently better funded and have better technology, weapons and intelligence than the police who pursue them. International enforcement catches some gangsters but decades of experience prove it can never eliminate the drugs market.
3) Crop replacement
Superficially this seems an attractive alternative to some of the most glaring problems of eradication. By offering financial incentives to farmers to replace opium production with non-drug crops the aim is to reduce production whilst avoiding the destruction and dangers of chemical or biological eradication.
Even if we overlook the huge cost and practical / bureaucratic problems of putting this sort of plan into action, it is doomed for the same reasons as chemical/biological eradication. Namely that it will not have a long term impact on overall global drug production, which will simply shift elsewhere. There may well be benefits for the farmers involved in the schemes but overall targets for reducing drug availability in the West will be untouched. So even if crops are successfully replaced, it will fail to make a dent in the global market.
4) Buy all the opium
A variation on the alternative development model is for Western governments to buy Afghanistan's entire opium crop. This idea first received attention in the UK when suggested by Kieth Hellawell (the former Drug Czar) in 1999, and has been revived recently in the wake of September the 11th.
The advantages and pitfalls of this plan are clear. The income of Afghan opium farmers could be secured and price guaranteed and stablised. It would remove the need for chemical and biological eradication, and it would certainly come out well in a cost/benefit comparison to these other alternatives. It could also avoid the disruption and practical problems of alternative development, although current discussion is suggesting that the opium buy out would be for the 2001-2002 planting-harvest season only and be used as a prelude to an alternative development scheme.
It would be difficult to justify maintaining such a policy in the long term, and there would undoubtedly be problems in preventing leakage into illegal markets. To avoid this leakage the price paid by the West would have to be higher than the global illegal market price, which would no doubt rise rapidly if such a large slice of global production was removed.
Ultimately, even if the plan actually worked, and removed almost all Afghan opium production from the world market, the same failings of eradication and alternative development would remain. Namely that the shortfall in world supply would soon inevitably be met by increased production in other regions. Taking the idea to its logical conclusion would therefore involve buying the entire global opium crop. Even if this were vaguely possible (or affordable - the illegal market price of opium would rapidly spiral) it would be doomed to failure, as again alternative sources of production would soon find a way to meet demand.
Quite what would happen to 4000-odd tonnes of raw opium each year is also unclear. Current licensing controls and monopolies on production of medical opiates means that it would be impossible to use it legitimately. So, bizarrely, a large part of the agricultural production from an entire country would have to be incinerated immediately after harvest.
5) Regulated production and supply
In all the media coverage of Afghan opium production few have bothered to mention that there also exists a vast parallel opium market that is entirely legal. This opium production, based largely in Tasmania, supplies the medical opiate market that includes codeine, morphine and diamorphine (heroin) for various legitimate medical applications.
This Tasmanian poppy production is strictly regulated, and the raw material (poppy straw) is imported into the UK where it is refined into heroin and other opiates. Most is used for pain control but some is prescribed to injecting addicts by specialist doctors.
From Tasmanian poppy fields to the arm of a UK heroin addict, every stage of this process takes place within a strict legal framework. Profits go into the legitimate economy and are taxed. There are no profits going to criminals, terrorists, illegal traffickers or street dealers. The price of this legal heroin reflects production costs so no-one is burgling houses, stealing cars, committing street robberies or prostituting themselves to purchase it. It is clean, of known strength and provided with clean needles so its users are not being poisoned, overdosing, or catching HIV and hepatitis.
The contrast with the criminal chain of supply from Afghan poppy fields to an illegal heroin user in the UK is striking.
This dramatic contrast is the key to mapping out a way forward on this seemingly intractable problem. It will involve a sea change in the way policy makers view heroin use - a shift from viewing it as a criminal justice issue to a public health issue. This is not the huge leap of consciousness some might imagine. The UK pioneered regulated heroin distribution through doctors until the early 70's and there are already moves underway to expand maintenance heroin prescribing to long term dependent users in the UK.
Making substantial inroads into the criminal opiate market would require a much more comprehensive legal production and supply framework than currently exists, but it is an entirely practical proposition that is backed by a large body of research. In many European cities thousands of dependent users already receive their heroin through legal channels.
Political obstacles to pragmatic reforms:
In July 1999 US "Drug Czar" Gen. Barry McCaffrey acknowledged that it is "silly at this point" to distinguish between anti-drug and counter-insurgency aid to Colombia. This comment highlighted how policy makers in the west have long used the "War on Drugs" as something of a smoke screen to pursue various military and geopolitical agendas that might be less publicly acceptable under any other banner.
Increasingly in the UK the "drug war" is not so much a tool for justifying imperialist adventures as a political device to assert one's moral credentials. The whole tone of drug war rhetoric means that any reform is synonymous with retreat or surrender, rather than pragmatism and effective evidence based policy making. After years of systematically demonising drugs, drug users, and drug dealers the apparent policy U turn required to begin implementing the pragmatic solutions described here would be perceived as politically unpalatable. It will require concerted lobbying to convince policy makers and the wider public of the benefits of reforms.
There is also the problem that the billions spent on interdiction in its various forms have created a vast high tech industry, incorporating customs, international anti drug squads, police and numerous other branches of the enforcement infrastructure. This industry has created powerful political and economic vested interests intent on maintaining the status quo. These agencies jealously guard their budgets and are instinctively opposed to reforms that involve reducing them or transferring money to public health interventions. The powerful influence of these bodies over high level policy-making decisions is a serious obstacle to policy reforms.
From the analysis above we can conclude:
Both international and domestic drug policy suffer from a lack of evidence base, a lack of evaluation, and a poor understanding of the nature of drug use and how the international drug market operates. These shortcomings and misunderstandings have led to the belief that drug use can somehow be eliminated by a combination of criminal justice enforcement and interdiction, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Once we accept the inescapable reality that interdiction will never succeed in its stated aims (although there may be strategic/political benefits to some) there may be a possibility for looking at other possible ways forward.
Real progress must involve
1. The Guardian, 29th September p.2
2. Geopolitical Drug Despatch, January 1992, p.1
For Further information See:
Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy - Good Collection of material on drugs and terrorism
- Excellent briefings on Afghanistan and the interface between the
war on drugs and the war on terror.
Narconews - A campaigning
journalist puts South American drug policy under scrutiny
For more information visit Transform