Opium economics

From a news story on American frustration with the drug war in Afghanistan:

KABUL – After several years of steady progress in curbing opium poppy cultivation and cracking down on drug smugglers, Afghan officials say the anti-drug campaign is flagging as opium prices soar, farmers are lured back to the lucrative crop and Afghanistan’s Western allies focus more narrowly on defeating the Taliban.

That combination adds a potentially destabilizing factor to Afghanistan at a time when the United States is desperate to show progress in a war now into its 10th year. The country’s Taliban insurgency and the drug trade flourish in the same lawless terrain, and are often mutually reinforcing. But Afghan officials say the opium problem is not receiving the focus it deserves from Western powers.

“The price of opium is now seven times higher than wheat, and there is a $58 billion demand for narcotics, so our farmers have no disincentive to cultivate poppy,” said Mohammed Azhar, deputy minister for counternarcotics. “We have gotten a lot of help, but it is not enough. Afghanistan is still producing 85 percent of the opium in the world, and it is still a dark stain on our name.”

via As opium prices soar and allies focus on Taliban, Afghan drug war stumbles.

The article suggests that the campaign against opium production has failed.  But it seems to have succeeded too well.  If the price has shot up, that means that the supply has become much smaller.  Also, high prices could be expected to mean a drop in the use of heroin and other opium-derived illegal drugs.

But what we are seeing are the unintended consequences of the program to curtail opium production.  Eradicating all of those poppies now just means that the product is even more valuable than it was before.  Now more Afghanis have an incentive to get into the drug business.  And heroin users who support their habit via crime now have to commit even more crimes to service their addiction.

The laws of the marketplace operate no matter what.  The only way to curtail drug production is to reduce demand, and that requires a cultural and moral change in OUR country, not Afghanistan.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • SKPeterson

    Since the demand for opiates is relatively steady – despite a medical profession that seemingly prescribes them for every minor ache and pain, one of the best things we could would be to legalize, or at de-criminalize, its use. Portugal has had a recent experiment in de-criminalization that appears to have succeeded. The Swiss have tried with varying levels of success. Both nation’s experience seems to indicate that there is not a large increase in the number of drug users post-legalization and Portugal even had addiction/use rates drop. So, the same number of drug-addled people will still be out there – they’ll just be able to get their drugs legally and ideally at a steady price and of consistent quality. Hoped for spillover effects in our country – reduced drug violence, lower rates of prostitution, lower rates of petty theft and robbery, reduced prison populations. Hoped for spillover effects in other countries – reduced drug violence particularly in funding violent separatist insurgencies, steady and more diverse incomes for small farmers, a legitimate source (though limited over time) of foreign exchange.

    It isn’t pretty, but much of life for far too many people isn’t either. De-criminalization may be the least worst solution for everyone.

  • SKPeterson

    Since the demand for opiates is relatively steady – despite a medical profession that seemingly prescribes them for every minor ache and pain, one of the best things we could would be to legalize, or at de-criminalize, its use. Portugal has had a recent experiment in de-criminalization that appears to have succeeded. The Swiss have tried with varying levels of success. Both nation’s experience seems to indicate that there is not a large increase in the number of drug users post-legalization and Portugal even had addiction/use rates drop. So, the same number of drug-addled people will still be out there – they’ll just be able to get their drugs legally and ideally at a steady price and of consistent quality. Hoped for spillover effects in our country – reduced drug violence, lower rates of prostitution, lower rates of petty theft and robbery, reduced prison populations. Hoped for spillover effects in other countries – reduced drug violence particularly in funding violent separatist insurgencies, steady and more diverse incomes for small farmers, a legitimate source (though limited over time) of foreign exchange.

    It isn’t pretty, but much of life for far too many people isn’t either. De-criminalization may be the least worst solution for everyone.

  • Joe

    I agree SK – any serious conversation about drugs and their consequences on society and individuals needs to include a look at legalization.

  • Joe

    I agree SK – any serious conversation about drugs and their consequences on society and individuals needs to include a look at legalization.

  • Cincinnatus

    I also agree with SKPeterson. I came here to make his point, but it has already been said. Bravo.

  • Cincinnatus

    I also agree with SKPeterson. I came here to make his point, but it has already been said. Bravo.

  • Cincinnatus

    Also, the exploitative and instrumentalized subjugation of nature in order to satisfy our boundless desires is a persistent theme or characteristic of modernity, related to the commodification of…everything. This trend of surrogacy seems to be only a continued and natural symptom of these trends–perhaps even the consummation of the trend.

    The humans of modernity find themselves unable to recognize limits–limits upon their nature and limits, restraints upon their concupiscence. While I can’t cast judgment on this particular situation, as I don’t know all the facts and don’t really care to know (celebrity gossip sickens me), the trend itself does seem to be inherently problematic if these aspects of the modern condition are taken as problematic. They are in my case. Callous as it may seem to say so, some individuals simply need to learn their limits. While it is sad, if not tragic, that certain couples cannot safely experience the joys of childbirth, this does not give them the right to commodity and exploit the bodies of other women, not to mention human children as well. And let’s preempt extreme free-marketeering here: regardless of whether some women “want” to provide this service (like Booklover’s acquaintance), there are some things we as limited, finite humans who acknowledge the sanctity of life, do not have the right or capacity to commodify, to “truck and barter” about. Fortunately, there are ethical outlets for the desire to bear children: thousands–perhaps millions–of children, even in our industrialized prosperous West, crave the love and attention of an actual family. Perhaps the barren womb is indicative, for some, of a vocation for the adoption of these children. I have a hard time believing that the barren womb instead provides a vocation for other women literally to commodify their bodies and treat children as goods to be bought and sold on a market.

  • Cincinnatus

    Also, the exploitative and instrumentalized subjugation of nature in order to satisfy our boundless desires is a persistent theme or characteristic of modernity, related to the commodification of…everything. This trend of surrogacy seems to be only a continued and natural symptom of these trends–perhaps even the consummation of the trend.

    The humans of modernity find themselves unable to recognize limits–limits upon their nature and limits, restraints upon their concupiscence. While I can’t cast judgment on this particular situation, as I don’t know all the facts and don’t really care to know (celebrity gossip sickens me), the trend itself does seem to be inherently problematic if these aspects of the modern condition are taken as problematic. They are in my case. Callous as it may seem to say so, some individuals simply need to learn their limits. While it is sad, if not tragic, that certain couples cannot safely experience the joys of childbirth, this does not give them the right to commodity and exploit the bodies of other women, not to mention human children as well. And let’s preempt extreme free-marketeering here: regardless of whether some women “want” to provide this service (like Booklover’s acquaintance), there are some things we as limited, finite humans who acknowledge the sanctity of life, do not have the right or capacity to commodify, to “truck and barter” about. Fortunately, there are ethical outlets for the desire to bear children: thousands–perhaps millions–of children, even in our industrialized prosperous West, crave the love and attention of an actual family. Perhaps the barren womb is indicative, for some, of a vocation for the adoption of these children. I have a hard time believing that the barren womb instead provides a vocation for other women literally to commodify their bodies and treat children as goods to be bought and sold on a market.

  • Cincinnatus

    Oops. wrong thread! I will not depart to post in the proper location. Moderator (Veith?), feel free to delete my misplaced comment @ 4.

  • Cincinnatus

    Oops. wrong thread! I will not depart to post in the proper location. Moderator (Veith?), feel free to delete my misplaced comment @ 4.

  • SKPeterson

    @Cincinnatus – your first sentence may be appropriate to this conversation, although the use and development of mind altering substances seems to run in close parallel with the development of cultures and societies.

  • SKPeterson

    @Cincinnatus – your first sentence may be appropriate to this conversation, although the use and development of mind altering substances seems to run in close parallel with the development of cultures and societies.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in 21st Century

    A common misconception is that these drugs are illegal. It is legal to possess and use just about every drug that is available. The laws for drug possession are similar to gun laws. One slip of paper makes all the difference. It is illegal to sell without a license and it is illegal to own without a license. The drug itself is not illegal. The FDA maintains what they call schedules which are classes of drugs based on potency, danger, and addictive nature – the lower the number the greater the control required. The drugs themselves are legal. I think we are right to maintain strict controls on these drugs as they are very dangerous even outside of their addictive nature.

    I worked in the substance abuse field and most had opiates that were initially obtained legally. I don’t know how much heroin is actually being used in the US most opiates I came across were the synthetics (oxy, roxy, vicadin). So I am not sure just how much rising prices in Afghanistan will affect US trade.

    A cultural and moral change in our country could help with drug abuse, but I have my doubts. Where moralism abounds so does hypocrisy and not every addict started as an amoral abuser. In my more cynical times I wonder if locking up addicts is the best course of action. Very few attain long term recovery, so maybe it is best for society if they were removed from society.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in 21st Century

    A common misconception is that these drugs are illegal. It is legal to possess and use just about every drug that is available. The laws for drug possession are similar to gun laws. One slip of paper makes all the difference. It is illegal to sell without a license and it is illegal to own without a license. The drug itself is not illegal. The FDA maintains what they call schedules which are classes of drugs based on potency, danger, and addictive nature – the lower the number the greater the control required. The drugs themselves are legal. I think we are right to maintain strict controls on these drugs as they are very dangerous even outside of their addictive nature.

    I worked in the substance abuse field and most had opiates that were initially obtained legally. I don’t know how much heroin is actually being used in the US most opiates I came across were the synthetics (oxy, roxy, vicadin). So I am not sure just how much rising prices in Afghanistan will affect US trade.

    A cultural and moral change in our country could help with drug abuse, but I have my doubts. Where moralism abounds so does hypocrisy and not every addict started as an amoral abuser. In my more cynical times I wonder if locking up addicts is the best course of action. Very few attain long term recovery, so maybe it is best for society if they were removed from society.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    What SK said.
    But the article shows just how stupid it is to think a “drug war” is winnable. It exacerbates the problem, that is all. Now if we took measures to legalize it, we could wrestle that lucrative trade away from the terrorist organizations that thrive on it, be it the taliban in Afghanistan, or Farc in Columbia.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    What SK said.
    But the article shows just how stupid it is to think a “drug war” is winnable. It exacerbates the problem, that is all. Now if we took measures to legalize it, we could wrestle that lucrative trade away from the terrorist organizations that thrive on it, be it the taliban in Afghanistan, or Farc in Columbia.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    DL21,
    Heroin on the street is out of control right now. Most start after becoming addicted to the pills you mentioned. But it is a huge problem in Tooele UT where I live. so I imagine it is huge everywhere else.
    I think this has everything to do with the war in Afghanistan. the Cocaine Import Agency, I am betting, has started running heroine too.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    DL21,
    Heroin on the street is out of control right now. Most start after becoming addicted to the pills you mentioned. But it is a huge problem in Tooele UT where I live. so I imagine it is huge everywhere else.
    I think this has everything to do with the war in Afghanistan. the Cocaine Import Agency, I am betting, has started running heroine too.

  • L. H. Kevil

    SKPeterson, Interesting post. Could you supply references documenting Portugal’s program and evaluating its success? Thanks.

  • L. H. Kevil

    SKPeterson, Interesting post. Could you supply references documenting Portugal’s program and evaluating its success? Thanks.

  • utahrainbow

    So, do legal opiates come from the poppy fields of Afghanistan? And if so, could the price rise be related to other health care related price rises and not necessarily just a drop in supply/rise in demand? I have no idea, I may be totally off base here.

  • utahrainbow

    So, do legal opiates come from the poppy fields of Afghanistan? And if so, could the price rise be related to other health care related price rises and not necessarily just a drop in supply/rise in demand? I have no idea, I may be totally off base here.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    I’m amused (or maybe saddened) that there is a significant push to liberalize the illicit use of opiates (and other mind-bending substances) while at the same time there is growing support to clamp down of the consumption of certain traditional food items deemed as “unhealthy” by Those Who Know Better Than You How To Feed Your Kids and the toys that sometimes accompany them.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    I’m amused (or maybe saddened) that there is a significant push to liberalize the illicit use of opiates (and other mind-bending substances) while at the same time there is growing support to clamp down of the consumption of certain traditional food items deemed as “unhealthy” by Those Who Know Better Than You How To Feed Your Kids and the toys that sometimes accompany them.

  • SKPeterson

    @L.H. #10 – Go here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drug_liberalization and then go to the references at the bottom. One article is from Time and the other is a paper from Cato. You can also access the pdf at Cato directly at http://www.cato.org .

    I have not read an article by Peter Reuter on Portugal that is referenced in the wiki article but not linked in the References. It is mentioned in the Time magazine article.

    @Mike #12 – what you note is obviously a fallback policy program established by the narco traffickers who anticipate drug legalization, but hope that there will be a thriving black market in illegal fatty foods. ;)

  • SKPeterson

    @L.H. #10 – Go here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drug_liberalization and then go to the references at the bottom. One article is from Time and the other is a paper from Cato. You can also access the pdf at Cato directly at http://www.cato.org .

    I have not read an article by Peter Reuter on Portugal that is referenced in the wiki article but not linked in the References. It is mentioned in the Time magazine article.

    @Mike #12 – what you note is obviously a fallback policy program established by the narco traffickers who anticipate drug legalization, but hope that there will be a thriving black market in illegal fatty foods. ;)

  • rlewer

    The best way would be to have the drug dealer pay bigs bucks to the farmers and then have the government take it away from the drug dealers. (Just dreaming.)

    How many Big Macs can you carry under your raincoat? The wave of the future!

  • rlewer

    The best way would be to have the drug dealer pay bigs bucks to the farmers and then have the government take it away from the drug dealers. (Just dreaming.)

    How many Big Macs can you carry under your raincoat? The wave of the future!

  • L. H. Kevil

    SKPeterson,

    The article on Portugal said that while personal possession was administrative, not criminal , trafficking was still criminal. So unless I am missing something, users would not be able to get their drugs legally, as you wrote. Nor would we expect the price to come down. I’m not sure what the advantage of that system is. Tell me what I am getting wrong. Thanks.

  • L. H. Kevil

    SKPeterson,

    The article on Portugal said that while personal possession was administrative, not criminal , trafficking was still criminal. So unless I am missing something, users would not be able to get their drugs legally, as you wrote. Nor would we expect the price to come down. I’m not sure what the advantage of that system is. Tell me what I am getting wrong. Thanks.

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  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I’m totally late to this ballgame, but …

    “But it seems to have succeeded too well. If the price has shot up, that means that the supply has become much smaller.” Ooooorrr … that the demand has become much greater, right? Which would mean that Drug War efforts are failing.

    “High prices could be expected to mean a drop in the use of heroin and other opium-derived illegal drugs.” They could … if heroin followed the rules of elastic demand and wasn’t, say, an extremely powerful, extremely addictive narcotic. But since heroin users tend to present an upper limit on “inelastic demand”, I might think that we’d take that into our consideration of the laws of economics.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I’m totally late to this ballgame, but …

    “But it seems to have succeeded too well. If the price has shot up, that means that the supply has become much smaller.” Ooooorrr … that the demand has become much greater, right? Which would mean that Drug War efforts are failing.

    “High prices could be expected to mean a drop in the use of heroin and other opium-derived illegal drugs.” They could … if heroin followed the rules of elastic demand and wasn’t, say, an extremely powerful, extremely addictive narcotic. But since heroin users tend to present an upper limit on “inelastic demand”, I might think that we’d take that into our consideration of the laws of economics.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “The only way to curtail drug production is to reduce demand, and that requires a cultural and moral change in OUR country, not Afghanistan.”

    I have to disagree at least in part. The USA could easily grow its own dope agriculturally speaking, but neither enough of our folks are willing nor will the government tolerate it en masse.

    I’ll bet plenty of the Afghan dope never leaves the country as it is quite popular with residents there. They smoke all they can and sell the rest, kind of like the USA does with food, eat all we can…

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “The only way to curtail drug production is to reduce demand, and that requires a cultural and moral change in OUR country, not Afghanistan.”

    I have to disagree at least in part. The USA could easily grow its own dope agriculturally speaking, but neither enough of our folks are willing nor will the government tolerate it en masse.

    I’ll bet plenty of the Afghan dope never leaves the country as it is quite popular with residents there. They smoke all they can and sell the rest, kind of like the USA does with food, eat all we can…

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