Afghanistan’s ‘Forever’ War on Drugs Has No End in Sight

It’s time to end the Eternal War ”, declared President Joe Biden. After 20 long bloody years came the chaotic international withdrawal and takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban. But there is another war, another American export, which lasts even longer. For decades Afghanistan has been caught in the crosshairs of the war on drugs “forever”, and there is no end in sight.

The Afghan economy is fueled by two plants: poppy and cannabis. The country is the world opium number one producer, accounting for around 90 percent of global supply, and the second biggest cannabis resin producer. Afghan farmers are diversifying and in recent years have started to provide methamphetamine market with crops of ephedra, a plant that can be used to produce chemical precursors to methamphetamine.

Poppy policing and the rest will now fall to the Taliban government. What approach will they take? Apparently it’s more the same.

“We assure our compatriots and the international community that we will not produce any narcotics …” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid Recount a press conference in Kabul in August. “No one can be involved in drug trafficking. Afghanistan will be a drug-free country from now on, but it needs international help. The international community should help us so that we can have alternative cultures… So very soon we can put an end to it.

If the Taliban attempted to create a “drug-free country,” it would require a violent war against the poppy-cultivating communities and plunging an already devastated economy into the abyss.

The statement was a travesty. The country cannot stop cultivating and processing the poppy because it is essential to the livelihoods of the people. hundreds of thousands Afghans who work throughout the supply chain. The United Nations believes that the opium trade is worth between 6 and 11 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product.

An integrated drug production ecosystem, built over decades of war and occupation, is deeply rooted in the southern provinces from Helmand, Kandahar and Nimruz. But the profits from the trade are spread all over the country, laundered by hawala, the informal banking system. No alternative culture can compete with the established infrastructure of the opium trade, where traffickers often pay producers up to 40 percent the cost of growing their crops in advance. If the Taliban attempted to create a “drug-free country” it would require a violent war against the communities that cultivate the poppy and are already plunging into a plunge.devastated economy in the abyss.

Dr Julia Buxton, an expert on international drug policy and a global professor at the British Academy at the University of Manchester, believes the Taliban are between a rock and a hard place. “While the Taliban administration may seek to reassure international opinion by expressing its hostility to the opium economy, the most important growing areas are in areas of Taliban support,” he said. she declared. Filtered. She therefore believes that they “will not want to alienate their base of support with a harsh anti-opium campaign”.

The failure of drug prohibition in Afghanistan can be summed up in one number: $ 8.97 billion. The United States spent this staggering amount of American taxpayer dollars on anti-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2017. The military and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) deployed the usual eradication tactics crops, border bans, arrests, prosecutions and incarceration of people. who use, sell and traffic drugs. Using B-52 bombers and F-22 fighters, the US military even detonated suspected drug labs. But the billions and the bombs have not made a dent in the illicit drug economy. Afghan heroin continues to dominate drug markets in Europe and Russian Federation, and the purity is good.

Ironically, the dependence of the Afghan economy on the poppy is a results of the international war on drugs. When Iran, Pakistan and other countries in the region cracked down on opium production in the 80s and 90s, he crossed the borders of Afghanistan, in a classic example of “balloon effect. “

While the Taliban is unlikely to really go all out, it would reactivate the balloon effect, with negative global consequences.

Drug dealers understand what the drug warriors won’t understand: that illicit drugs can never be eliminated when millions of people around the world want to buy them. The huge profits that the people at the top of the chain make – unlike the thousands of low-wage workers and farmers at the bottom – are worth the risk.

While it is unlikely that the Taliban will do much to end the opium trade in Afghanistan, it would reactivate the balloon effect, with negative global consequences. “If Afghanistan and the Taliban opt for a ban, they could quickly find themselves without a market in countries like Europe. noted Vanda Felbab-Brown, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Other countries could easily switch to synthetic opioids from China and India.” This will only increase the risk for consumers, because we saw strongly illustrated by the replacement of heroin by fentanyl and its analogues in many parts of North America.

Such a result would only accelerate the existing trend under the global ban. The future of opioids are stronger synthetic drugs mixed in clandestine labs, not farmers in fields harvesting opium gum with a neshtar. This plant-to-chemical shift is “a combination of economics and pharmacology as well as globalization,” according to Bryce Pardo, drug policy researcher at RAND Corporation. The main thing, like the iron law of prohibition dictates that it is cheaper, easier, faster and more cost effective to make more potent synthetic opioids.

So what is a solution that avoids the worst harms, both for Afghan poppy farming communities and for drug users in the country and around the world? For Buxton, one option is to allow Afghanistan to join other countries in legal poppy cultivation. “The ideal scenario would be the formalization of opium cultivation for the legal and medical markets. But this will require massive investments in irrigation, land consolidation and security… ”.

It sounds like a tall order. For decades, Afghanistan’s poorly funded health system has experienced a shortage of basic medicines, including opioids for pain control. “The country is not self-sufficient in terms of the production and supply of medicines,” said Attaullah Ahmadi, director of research for Asia at Global Health Focus in Afghanistan. Filtered. “It depends on importing drugs from other countries and some are of poor quality.”

Convert the currently illegal opium to pain forensics could alleviate several problems at once. Afghan pharmaceutical industry could help patients in need of analgesia and create much needed jobs.

The future of drug addicts and drug treatment in Afghanistan is uncertain. The impoverished country is supplied with cheap opiates and hundreds of thousands of people, maybe millions (there are no reliable estimates) smoke opium and inject heroin. There has always been a serious shortage of drug treatment and most programs depend on NGOs, many of which have fled the country, and on international aid, which has been stopped by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. “These foreign donors help treat drug addicts as well as train staff at these centers,” Ahmadi said. “However, despite their efforts and investments in this area, the number of drug addicts is increasing in the country.”

In a country where the vast majority of drug addicts are dependent on opioids, the evidence-based and life-saving drugs, methadone and buprenorphine, are scarce or unavailable at all. Additionally, there is a pervasive stigma associated with the use of drugs to treat addiction. There is only one methadone program in Kabul, which serves only 70 patients.

These are human rights violations, not drug addiction treatment.

Most programs are abstinence-based; patients are detoxified and the 12-step approach of Narcotics Anonymous is used. Decades of studies show “drug-free” treatment does not work. The simplest and most effective option would be to keep people on opium or heroin which is already widely available and inexpensive. “Assisted heroin treatment” programs exist in many countries in Europe and Canada, with high success rates.

Many Afghan abstinence-based programs have been exposed for using punishment, coercion and humiliation. A program in Uruzgan for men shaves his head forcibly and chains his ankles so that they cannot leave. At Mother’s Trust, a drug treatment program in Kabul directed by Laila Haidari, it is about “hard love”. The heads are also shaved and the men wear purple uniforms to discourage them from running away. “If they relapse and come here a second time, I shave their eyebrows too… If they break the rules, I will beat them,” she said. noted. These are Human rights abuse, not drug treatment.

There are few harm reduction programs in the country; most are located in Kabul and depend on international funding. Bridge Better Hope Health Organization, including Michelle Tolson, who spent years in Kabul, reported for Filtered, was founded by a former heroin user in 2015. Peer helpers visit drug hot spots and provide training on harm reduction strategies, overdose management, wound care, first aid services and naloxone (when available) to drug users.

In Kabul, several years ago, make a methadone documentary, I interviewed some of the people involved in this program. I traveled with them to raise awareness on the banks of the Kabul River where there is a huge outdoor drug scene. I will never forget their compassion, courage and belief in helping the most vulnerable and desperate people to seek methadone treatment. With the Taliban in power, there are concerns for this vital program and its workers.

Despite all the drug war propaganda, poppy production in Afghanistan has never been the problem. What is one problem is the ban on the cultivation and use of this plant to alleviate human suffering, in a country which has suffered far too much. It is high time to end this “eternal” war too.


Photographs of people served by the Bridge Better Hope Health Organization by Helen Redmond

Attaullah Ahmadi is the recipient of a Knowledge-Action-Change Tobacco Harm Reduction Fellowship. The Influence Foundation, which operates Filtered, has also received scholarships and donations from the KAC.

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