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Contending With Afghan Heroin (And How Not To)

European governments have taken two divergent paths in dealing with the resurrected flow of narcotics from Afghanistan, legalization and an American-style war on drugs.

One open secret about the war in Afghanistan is that it has led to a flood of pure, cheap heroin in the world’s cities since 2001. “Despite reported decreases in white heroin production in most source countries,” the U.S. Justice Department admitted in 2006, “increased production in Afghanistan has resulted in an overall increase in worldwide white heroin production.”

The production of white (or pure) heroin, in other words, had generally receded around the world — but supplies from war-torn Afghanistan more than picked up the slack. Now, according to some estimates, Afghanistan produces 90 percent of the world’s opium.

The reasons are simple. In the late ’90s, the Taliban tried — or pretended to try — to end poppy cultivation on the grounds that drugs were an offense to Allah. But poppies are as natural to Afghanistan as coca is to Colombia or Bolivia. So when hostilities flared and the economy collapsed, farmers re-planted their poppies, and warlords on both sides of the battle dipped into the opium trade for funds.

“However,” the Justice Department’s threat assessment from 2006 predicted, “U.S. drug markets will most likely not be significantly affected by the increase in Afghanistan-produced heroin in the near term.”

This more or less proved to be true. The glut of cheap, high-grade heroin from Afghan poppies did move largely along traditional routes to Europe and Russia rather than the United States. The problem alarms Russian officials. “The time has come to qualify the status of Afghan drug production as a threat to world peace and security,” the Russian antinarcotics czar, Viktor Ivanov, told a security conference in Berlin last summer.

In February, he presented a Russian drug-control plan, Raduga-2, to European governments and NATO, but it’s astonishingly thin on new ideas. For all the anti-Western rhetoric Ivanov sometimes indulges in, Raduga-2 sounds like a rehash of failed American policy.

EUROPEAN DISPATCHMichael Scott Moore complements his standing feature in Miller-McCune magazine with frequent posts on the policy challenges and solutions popping up on the other side of the pond.

Michael Scott Moore complements his standing feature in Miller-McCune magazine with frequent posts on the policy challenges and solutions popping up on the other side of the pond.

Russia wants to eradicate Afghan poppy crops and punish landlords who let farmers cultivate them. “The main goal of our policy is destruction of poppy fields,” Ivanov said last year in an interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta. “The U.S. managed to destroy about 80 percent of illegal coca plantations in Colombia by defoliation, by spraying the fields with special reagents. This way, nearly 230,000 hectares were freed from coca in 2008.”

Of course, it’s possible that Ivanov is joking and just wants to twit Washington. The idea of spraying Andean coca fields with herbicides regularly recurs in Congress and the American press, both before and after the unevenly successfulPlan Colombia. The most sophisticated idea is to use mycoherbicides, or special fungi, to target just one sort of crop and leave everything else alone. It doesn’t work. (It has also opened the U.S. up to charges of biological warfare. )

Even if it did work, it wouldn’t stop the heroin trade. As one critic at the Center for International Policy puts it, “The most perfect mycoherbicide would only eliminate coca bushes [in Colombia]. It wouldn’t eliminate poverty, impunity, corruption, or the Colombian government’s inability to administer its territory.”

Punishing landlords is just as useless in a nation as corrupt as Afghanistan, because the laws are used selectively — friends of a given leader let their poppies quietly flourish, while enemies are punished.

But Russia seems bent on an American-style drug war instead of trying to quell demand. Meanwhile, European countries from Britain to Portugal have shown some success in legalizing heroin and even dispensing it to addicts through maintenance programs. It sounds crazy at first, but the effect — in trial after trial — is to rob drugs of their criminal glamour and reduce usage overall. And legalization can drive away gangsters.

In Portugal, five years of decriminalization have led not to drug tourists in Lisbon but a decline in the use of almost every drug but marijuana. Heroin use in America went up during the same period — precisely because some of those poppies from Afghanistan have found their way across the ocean.

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