Slate on Afghanistan and opium

| Comments (3) | Pharma
Ann Applebaum has an article in Slate proposing more or less the EG opium price support plan for Afghanistan:
As a result, in 1974, the Turks, with U.S. and U.N. support, tried a different tactic. They began licensing poppy cultivation for the purpose of producing morphine, codeine, and other legal opiates. Legal factories were built to replace the illegal ones. Farmers registered to grow poppies, and they paid taxes. You wouldn't necessarily know this from the latest White House drug strategy report which devotes several pages to Afghanistan but doesn't mention Turke ybut the U.S. government still supports the Turkish program, even requiring U.S. drug companies to purchase 80 percent of what the legal documents euphemistically refer to as "narcotic raw materials" from the two traditional producers, Turkey and India.

Why not add Afghanistan to this list?

I've (obviously) got no problem with legitimizing opiate production in Afghanistan, but clearly there's an upper limit to how much opium we can turn into legal opiate products. In the US at least, the demand for opiates isn't limited by price (pharmaceutical opioids are already incredibly; 90 vicodin go for $24 at but rather by the willingness of doctors to prescribe opioids to their patients (which is partly limited by the DEA's rather aggressive efforts to punish doctors for what they perceive as overzealous painkiller prescribing).

Given that the demand for legal pharmaceutical opioids is fairly inelastic and we're not going to start burning them in our cars or something (though that would make rush hour traffic more interesting), we're presumably fairly close to the upper limit of opium we're going to consume. If we're already buying 80% of our raw materials from Turkey and India, then there isn't likely to be much room to add Afghan production. So, at some point this strategy turns into just buying up opium and stockpiling it (there's room in Fort Knox, right?) or destroying it. Not that there's anything wrong with that.


You mention that demand isn't price limited in the US. It is, however, price limited in much of the rest of the world. Increasing its availability would allow more people access to pain killers.

Here's an economic solution:

1. First world governments start cultivating large amounts of poppies and turning the result into heroin/opium. They use this to flood the world market, depressing narcotics prices.

2. Revenues are transferred to third world countries in the form of pain killer import subsidies. Poor countries can now get cheap prescription drugs, increasing global demand, thus increasing prices on the world market.

3. Opiate legitimization proceeds in Afghanistan. With the price of illegal drugs falling, and the price of legal drugs rising, you'd think it would be an easy sell.

Yes, this solution is morally impaired (the first part, anyway). No, I'm not serious. It just seems like a good market-oriented solution.

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