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How Opium Can Save Afghanistan
December 21, 2008 10:15 PM   Subscribe

Poppy For Medicine. "America's drug war in Afghanistan has been a miserable failure. So why not legalize opium production and let Afghanistan become the Saudi Arabia of morphine?"
posted by homunculus (57 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
It seems like someone must be producing a large amount of raw poppy sap considering how vital morphine/codiene/thebaine are to commercial opiate synthesis, why not get poppies from the worlds oldest poppy growers? Because it takes money away from the non-Afghanny poppy growers?

I hear addiction to prescription opiates is on the rise, so I guess it all jives.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 10:32 PM on December 21, 2008


It would seem to make sense, but the pharma companies would be seeking a reliable supply and frankly Tasmania is more stable than Afghanistan is ever likely to be.
posted by caddis at 10:32 PM on December 21, 2008


Because the American way is to have them on the outside pissing in.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:53 PM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Cost isn't really the problem. Morphine is very cheap. The sterile glass ampule and IV are more expensive than the chemical itself. Distribution costs—including medical facilities and personnel—dominate the cost of the drug.

As a result, cheaper Afghan morphine is not going to suddenly make morphine available to cancer patients in South America. Someone still has buy the opium, refine the morphine, ship it to South America, and distribute it. Those last steps would still be the sticking point even if the morphine were free.

The economic and political benefits to Afghanistan could be great, but it's a market intervention that will have consequences (e.g. harming opium farmers in Tasmania and India). So long as the Afghan farmers can make more money selling the opium to heroin producers, the market and the lawless climate will conspire to make voluntary sales to medical morphine producers unlikely. The worldwide market for heroin is several times larger than the worldwide market for medical morphine and its derivatives.

First make heroin cheaper through decriminalization and harm reduction programs. Then medical morphine will be a more attractive market for Afghan poppy farmers.
posted by jedicus at 11:08 PM on December 21, 2008 [6 favorites]


Because drugs are bad!

Drugs that don't profit Big Pharma are bad!

Just say no!
posted by orthogonality at 11:37 PM on December 21, 2008


Because drugs are bad!

Drugs that don't profit Big Pharma are bad!


Uh, the whole point is making these drugs profit Big Pharma.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:39 PM on December 21, 2008


While it makes sense to legalize the opium trade in Afghanistan, poppy production will not bootstrap Afghanistan's economy toward productivity, because, as jedicus pointed out above, there are already a number of different producers, including Turkey. The Star article I link to indicates that the total revenues generated in Turkey by the legal sale of opium products is about $60 million. A single semiconducter factory generates more revenue, or perhaps five shirt or garment factories employing 1000 people. I suppose that in a cash-poor economy like Afghanistan, $60m will make a difference, but it's not enough.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:01 AM on December 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Uh, the whole point is making these drugs profit Big Pharma.

I think he's talking about the immense profit that comes from patented medicines. There's not as much money in generic drugs, like morphine.

Look at the treatments for hypertension, for example. Studies show that the most effective treatment for hypertension are diuretics like caffeine, but years after the studies, they're still not prescribed as much as the expensive, heavily marketed stuff.

Anyway yeah this will never happen BECAUSE DRUGS ARE BAD M'KAY. In fact, I suspect that the US will continue it's idiotic poppy eradication programs, further alienating the locals.
posted by delmoi at 1:52 AM on December 22, 2008


America's drug war in Afghanistan has been a miserable failure because they turn a blind eye so as not to piss off the Warlords. I've talked to a few U.S. veterans of the Afghan War and this is one reason we see a lack of embedded journalists as compared to Iraq.
posted by gman at 3:46 AM on December 22, 2008


Hey! That's my buddy Reza! I went to Divinity School with him. Cool.

Ever since my surgery last year I've been a big fan of morphine. With a drug that awesome around, I don't know how any civilization ever got off the ground. It would be way more satisfying to just lie around feeling fantastic all the time.

I didn't get any more of the stuff once I left the recovery room.

SAVE THE POPPIES!
posted by Hildegarde at 3:52 AM on December 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


One of the many ironies of the situation in Afghanistan is that in early 2001 US drug enforcement agents were reporting almost zero poppy cultivation in the 95% of the country under Taliban control; they were expecting no statistically significant heroin exports from Afghanistan during the year.
posted by mandal at 4:49 AM on December 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Lots of rather odd comments here, including the notion that we are erradicating poppy crop when we find it. Taliban lives off money from poppy crop. We managed at one point to pay farmers not to grow the stuff in order to cut funding for Taliban. But now farmers back to it because it still is easier crop to grow and get paid for. I have no firm evidence but I had heard from one returning soldier (Afghanistan and Iraq duty) that CIA involved in the crop. He claims to know this first hand.
posted by Postroad at 4:54 AM on December 22, 2008


It worked so well the last time colonial powers forced a weaker nation to produce massive ammounts of opium at the point of a bayonnet, I don't see why it wouldn't this go round.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:08 AM on December 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Poppy for medicine.

For a second there, I thought you meant George H.W. Bush.
posted by fungible at 5:33 AM on December 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Offtopic: Do they still grow lots of opium in Pakistan? One of my favourite scenes in the British miniseries Traffic was the opening shot of the Pakistani opium farmer checking to see if he poppies were ready. Totally made me want to move to South Asia and make opium.
posted by chunking express at 6:27 AM on December 22, 2008


Offtopic: Do they still grow lots of opium in Pakistan? One of my favourite scenes in the British miniseries Traffic was the opening shot of the Pakistani opium farmer checking to see if he poppies were ready. Totally made me want to move to South Asia and make opium.

The only opium I saw/smoked in Pakistan came from Afghanistan, but that makes sense as it was the NWFP.
posted by gman at 7:05 AM on December 22, 2008


colonial powers forced a weaker nation to produce massive ammounts of opium at the point of a bayonnet

That is, how to say it politely, poppycock.

Pollomacho, may I suggest you go back and read your own links. There you will find that the so-called First and Second Opium Wars were about keeping open the Chinese market for opium grown in British India.
posted by Mister Bijou at 7:35 AM on December 22, 2008


Its an initiative that certainly won't get anywhere unless Afghanistan's government got on board - which it very much isn't.

Were this to gain any traction, which it very likely won't, you could expect massive opposition from producers like Johnson and Johnson and GlaxoSmithKline, who enjoy the benefits of legal sanction to produce raw opium in highly secure operations in places like Tasmania.
posted by nanojath at 7:51 AM on December 22, 2008


The Star article I link to indicates that the total revenues generated in Turkey by the legal sale of opium products is about $60 million. A single semiconducter factory generates more revenue, or perhaps five shirt or garment factories employing 1000 people. I suppose that in a cash-poor economy like Afghanistan, $60m will make a difference, but it's not enough.

Excellent point, and I don't think it is emphasized enough. Pushing agriculture is not going to be a viable economic plan for Afghanistan's future. United States and other first world countries absolutely dominate on efficiency, quality and distribution infrastructure. Even if Afghanistan's geography and climate give it extra boosts to match the level of efficiency in other opium producing nations, the quality of jobs will not create the equality needed for a stable middle class. Instead, you'll have a feudal distribution of wealth of wealthy land owners and impoverished workers and share croppers.

What is needed is a diverse economy filled with skill workers that populate semiconductor factories and, in turn, raise the living situation of the poorer classes (one of the interesting ironies is that increased industrialization actually benefits unskilled labor). Of course the mechanism of change in this case is not obvious or even knowable. I would argue that our money would be best spent on an aggressive education program that get the best and brightest of Afghanistan to foreign universities while simultaneously developing a solid educational system internally. Within 5-10 years you're going to have at least an emerging middle class and a reduction of religious radicalism.

Of course, politically, building a bunch of schools and throwing money at education is incredibly unpopular. No one wants to be taking out loans while their roommate is getting a free ride. There's a certain something about paying troops to man checkpoints and burning poppy fields that just feels right.
posted by geoff. at 8:17 AM on December 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


NYT, May 2001
posted by mandal at 8:31 AM on December 22, 2008


That is, how to say it politely, poppycock.

First and Second Opium Wars were about keeping open the Chinese market for opium grown in British India.

So you're saying that the British forcing India into massive opium production was actually a success because it brought down the Qing dynasty?
posted by Pollomacho at 8:32 AM on December 22, 2008


First make heroin cheaper through decriminalization and harm reduction programs.

I was in agreement with your comment right up to this part. Decriminalizing pot makes a lot of sense, but decriminalizing heroin would be a disaster. Heroin, like crack and meth, is one of those drugs that truly are BAD M'KAY.
posted by jsonic at 8:52 AM on December 22, 2008


Even if Afghanistan's geography and climate give it extra boosts to match the level of efficiency in other opium producing nations, the quality of jobs will not create the equality needed for a stable middle class. Instead, you'll have a feudal distribution of wealth of wealthy land owners and impoverished workers and share croppers.

So? If it even just removed them from the list of major illicit opium producers and helped dry up some Taliban funding it would be a victory and leave them in no worse situation than they are today. A diverse economy filled with skill workers that populate semiconductor factories seems like a bit of a pipe dream for this neck of the woods. Sometimes one needs to start with baby steps. [I remain unconvinced that this baby step would work though - see my comment above.]
posted by caddis at 8:59 AM on December 22, 2008


It worked so well the last time colonial powers forced a weaker nation to produce massive ammounts of opium at the point of a bayonnet, I don't see why it wouldn't this go round.

So you're saying that the British forcing India into massive opium production was actually a success because it brought down the Qing dynasty?


I don't see how this compares to the Opium Wars. No one is talking about forcing the Afghans to grow poppies who aren't already doing so, they're proposing that we try to work with the existing poppy farmers to use their crop to make pain medicine instead of heroin.
posted by homunculus at 9:22 AM on December 22, 2008


If big Pharma isn't giving them the opportunities they need, they should branch out into other product directions.

Think of how great peanut-butter and chocolate go together. You know what could be even better? Morphine and chocolate. Morpholate. Or maybe something in a soda offering: Poppy-Cola; half the calories, fifteen hundred times the high.

Shit, the possibilities are endless.
posted by quin at 10:03 AM on December 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


homunculus, the problem here is that selling your poppies to people making heroin is probably going to pay more than selling it to people who make opiate based medicine. And decriminalizing heroin probably won't work out so well, because heroin is fucking heroin. An economy based primarily on agriculture isn't going to take your country very far. I guess this has already been said several times in this thread.
posted by chunking express at 10:32 AM on December 22, 2008


So you're saying that the British forcing India into massive opium production was actually a success because it brought down the Qing dynasty?

How does fighting a war with China force the Indians to do anything? The British fought the Chinese, to prevent the Chinese from banning Opium. And it didn't bring down the Qing dynasty either. The taiping rebellion caused a lot more damage then the Opium wars, I think. And furthermore the Qing survived until 1912, another 50 years after then Opium wars.

The only way this makes sense is if you somehow believe "forcing" someone to grow opium means the same thing as "not forcing them not too" which is what people are arguing should be done in Afghanistan.
posted by delmoi at 10:34 AM on December 22, 2008


Decriminalizing pot makes a lot of sense, but decriminalizing heroin would be a disaster. Heroin, like crack and meth, is one of those drugs that truly are BAD M'KAY.

actually if you avoid overdosing, if your heroin isn't cut with crap, and you can afford it without resorting to crime, heroin is one of the safer drugs out there. Way safer than, for example, tobacco and alcohol.

Withdrawal sucks, but it won't kill you. Alcohol withdrawal can actually fucking kill you.

People generally aren't inclined to be aggressive or go driving wildly while on under the influence of heroin. Heroin won't destroy your organs.
posted by spacediver at 11:10 AM on December 22, 2008 [3 favorites]


... actually if you avoid overdosing ...

Damn! It's almost too simple.
posted by chunking express at 11:16 AM on December 22, 2008


another thing to consider is that many heroin "overdoses" are actually the result of overdosing on the impurities, a fact not often mentioned in the scare reports.
posted by spacediver at 11:29 AM on December 22, 2008


spacediver, maybe you are right. I'm no expert on this sort of thing. I personally haven't met a chilled out functional heroin addict, chasing the dragon during a smoke break, before getting back to the grind. That doesn't mean they don't exist. I may just lead a sheltered life.
posted by chunking express at 11:34 AM on December 22, 2008


Opium in SE Asia is the equivalent of unwinding on booze here. Only with less damage.
posted by gman at 11:35 AM on December 22, 2008


homunculus, the problem here is that selling your poppies to people making heroin is probably going to pay more than selling it to people who make opiate based medicine.

I think that depends on who you're selling the raw product to. I've read that the poppy farmers actually get very little money from the Taliban and warlords for their raw product compared to the sale price of the end product. Even if they'd make less profit, if you could offer them still decent wages, and tell them that their product would be used for medicine instead of heroin and that they wouldn't have to worry about crop eradication, some might go for it.

A bigger problem, I think, would be that the Taliban and warlords will fight to keep the poppies being used for heroin, and they'd be able to intimidate the farmers quite easilly. You'd have to provide functioning security to those villages, and that's easier said than done

The odds aren't good for pulling this off, but things are so bad now, I think it's worth a try. But the powers that be are so committed to the drug war I seriously doubt they'll ever give this a chance.
posted by homunculus at 11:46 AM on December 22, 2008


another thing to consider is that many heroin "overdoses" are actually the result of overdosing on the impurities, a fact not often mentioned in the scare reports.

Bullshit:

"[H]eroin has a LD50 of between 1 and 5 mg/kg. This means that a 75 to 375 mg sample of heroin will be fatal to 50% of average people weighing 75 kg. Examples of LD50 of other poisons include:

Botulism
<0.01 mg substance/kg body mass

Potassium cyanide
Between 1 and 5 mg substance/kg body mass

Morphine
Between 5 and 50 mg substance/kg body mass

Aspirin, Sulfuric acid
Between 50 and 500 mg substance/kg body mass

Amphetamine, Nicotine
Between 500 and 5000 mg substance/kg body mass

Ethanol, soap
Between 5000 and 15000 mg substance/kg body mass
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:47 AM on December 22, 2008


Perhaps "forcing" is too strong a term. Perhaps "strongly suggesting" they use their land for cash crop production rather than sustaining themselves with food crops is more akin to the terminology I'm looking for. By strongly suggesting I mean making it virtually impossible to do otherwise and weighting the system to favor the colonialists to the point of actually "disappearing" dissenters. You know, the system that makes the name Banana Republic so ironic for a store that sells products stamped out in third world sweatshops.
posted by Pollomacho at 11:49 AM on December 22, 2008


I don't think decriminalization would create a legal market for opium, any more than it would for weed. Well, a little more, but not that much. If weed were legal, no one would make a dime off it. Not Phillip Morris, not the government planning to tax it, etc. People would just grow their own weed all over the place and it would be free. If opiates were decriminalized, I think the most likely outcome would be more backyards full of poppies and people having a little puff before bed.
posted by snofoam at 11:57 AM on December 22, 2008


People would just grow their own weed all over the place and it would be free.

It's free to grow your own tomatoes, but you still have to pay for them at the market. Some people even get enslaved and exploited for the tomatoes we eat.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:05 PM on December 22, 2008


anotherpanacea, that isn't all that relevant to my claim.

Yes, heroin is a powerful CNS depressant, and will indeed kill you if it exceeds the lethal dose for that individual (obviously).

A few things tho: -


*experienced users can tolerate doses of close to 2 grams without getting sick.

*people can and do self regulate their doses

most importantly, in the real world, overdosing from heroin (rather than from dying due to the impurities) is not as common as you may believe.

One thing that heroin users do need to watch out for is having a consistent environment in which to administer the drug. Changing the environment can have dramatic short term effects on tolerance levels, because (according to conditioning theory) the body is not as primed by the environment to elicit a compensatory response to the drug. This can result in a true heroin overdose.
posted by spacediver at 12:15 PM on December 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Pollomacho, it's not the same. Tomatoes are way more work. I can't prove it, but I am 100% sure that in the case of marijuana specifically, if it were legal the price would drop to basically zero.
posted by snofoam at 12:17 PM on December 22, 2008


The Guardian has a series of articles about heroin in Afghanistan today:

Life in Helmand, where rich rewards are reaped by poppy farmers, police and the Taliban

Heroin, schools and the heart of the insurgency

War continues to create ideal conditions for growth
posted by homunculus at 12:29 PM on December 22, 2008


actually, impurities is a bit of a herring also. More likely is the combination of other drugs such as benzodiazepines and alcohol.

Here's an excellent review from 1996

http://www.drugpolicy.org/library/darke2.cfm

I'll look around for a more recent one to see what the literature has to say about the matter today.
posted by spacediver at 12:29 PM on December 22, 2008


We got to flee to Panama, but wait it's half and half
Keys is one and two-fifth, so how we flip:
Thirty-two grams raw, chop it in half, get sixteen, double it times three
We got forty-eight, which mean a whole lot of cream.
Divide the profit by four, subtract it by eight
We back to sixteen, now add the other two that 'Mega bringing through.
So let's see, if we flip this other key
Then that's more for me, mad coke and mad leak
Plus a five hundred, cut in half is two-fifty
Now triple that times three, we got three quarters of another key
posted by chunking express at 12:40 PM on December 22, 2008


just read through a few recent reviews on heroin overdoses. Here are some quotes from one of them (with citations omitted):

Possibly the most important finding to emerge from heroin overdose research is the role of polydrug use. The overwhelming majority of overdoses, both fatal and nonfatal, involve the concomitant consumption of heroin with other drugs. The extensiveness of polydrug use among “heroin” overdoses suggests that “polydrug toxicity” is a better description of the toxicology of overdose. The major drugs associated with an increased risk of fatal and nonfatal heroin overdose are alcohol, benzodiazepines, and tricyclic antidepressants.


...


The most long-standing and widely accepted explanation for death
due to heroin is the result of a quantity or quality of heroin in excess of the person’s current tolerance to the drug.A natural consequence of this view is that fluctuation in heroin purity is the major cause of heroin-related deaths. Research, however, has failed to support this view. In the United States, Desmond et al. reported a nonsignificant correlation between heroin potency and number of deaths, while Ruttenber and Luke found heroin purity accounted for only 24% of the variance in heroin overdose fatalities. In Europe, Risser et al. found no relationship between the purity of heroin seizures and number of heroin-related deaths. In Australia, variations in heroin purity accounted for only a third of the variance in overdose deaths.

Overall, heroin purity appears to have only a moderate relationship to heroin-related fatalities. It should also be noted that harmful contaminants are rarely detected in either syringes or the bodies of overdose cases; instead, relatively innocuous substances such as caffeine and sucrose are most commonly detected at autopsy.



Another interesting factor was that intervention is rarely sought (i.e. calling an ambulance) for fear of police involvement.
posted by spacediver at 1:11 PM on December 22, 2008


sorry, above was taken from

Darke S, Hall W (2003) Heroin overdose: Research and evidence-based intervention Journal of Urban Health, 189-200.
posted by spacediver at 1:20 PM on December 22, 2008


sorry, above was taken from

Darke S, Hall W (2003) Heroin overdose: Research and evidence-based intervention Journal of Urban Health, 189-200.
posted by spacediver at 1:20 PM on December 22, 2008


Heroin, like crack and meth, is one of those drugs that truly are BAD M'KAY.

Yes, and making them illegal has been a spectacular success, so why mess with it, m'kay?
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:35 PM on December 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


most importantly, in the real world, overdosing from heroin (rather than from dying due to the impurities) is not as common as you may believe.

Most people that live among the lotus eaters aren't very interested in heroin--at least, not in the golden triangle. Opium smoking, on the other hand, is rampant.

One of my favourite scenes in the British miniseries Traffic was the opening shot of the Pakistani opium farmer checking to see if he poppies were ready.

Don't know if Pakistan is still like this, but in the highlands of the golden triangle and northern Laos I saw entire mountains covered in poppies.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:41 PM on December 22, 2008


Does anyone even care that, basically, heroin IS morphine?

No, because US "drug" mythology has placed heroin in the role as Satan, and morphine as somehow something much more benign.

Learn the basics before spouting off ridiculous prejudices as if they were truth.

This idea that morphine could displace heroin is simply absurd. Because they are essentially the same thing!
posted by telstar at 5:49 PM on December 22, 2008


And news from three weeks ago:

Heroin Legalization Program Approved By Swiss Voters
posted by telstar at 5:56 PM on December 22, 2008


More bad news for the heroin/bad-morphine/good crowd. It appears that heroin is an improved morphine.
posted by telstar at 6:11 PM on December 22, 2008


Morphine isn't a super addictive opiate? Because I don't think anyone in this thread thought otherwise.
posted by chunking express at 6:34 PM on December 22, 2008


The way I see it, as long as there is poverty there will be drug use. I would rather have the hobos all on heroin/morphine and just nodding off or whatever. The other drugs of choice all seem much worse. Alcohol, crack or meth, and they are all jittery and full of crazy energy and annoying everyone else.

The front line people, police and ambulance, that I've known have all agreed that they would rather be dealing with heroin addicts.
posted by Iax at 7:53 PM on December 22, 2008


The way I see it, as long as there is poverty there will be drug use.

I'm not poor and neither are my friends.
posted by gman at 4:07 AM on December 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


The way I see it, as long as there is poverty there will be drug use.

Because rich people can afford xanax and doctor shopping.
posted by delmoi at 12:40 PM on December 23, 2008


I dont care how much drugs rich people use. They can afford reliable dossages and they can afford to have other people help them out. They aren't the ones bothering you when you go down the street or breaking into your car.
posted by Iax at 4:24 PM on December 23, 2008


Iax - You must be from Vancouver.
posted by gman at 4:38 PM on December 23, 2008


Wait, forget the opium, viagra will save Afghanistan!

Little Blue Pills Among the Ways CIA Wins Friends in Afghanistan
posted by homunculus at 12:53 PM on December 26, 2008


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