Afghanistan's opium industry is teetering on the brink of legalisation, and could provide a source of opiates for the developing world, reports Katharine Sanderson in this Nature article.
The UN and the Afghan government want to eradicate Afghanistan's opium poppies with crop spraying. But with the population so dependent on opium for their income — trade accounts of 40 per cent of the country's gross domestic product — international bodies are looking for alternatives to eradication.
Turning part of the poppy crop into legal analgesics — such as morphine and codeine — for the developing world would hand over control of opium production to local communities, say advocates, and similar schemes in Turkey and India have been successful.
Critics of such schemes say there is no global shortage of morphine, pointing out that for the last 20 years there have been sufficient quantities to satisfy the market.
But others say market demand is not the same as actual need, and the need for opiates in developing countries is underestimated, due to under-prescription and difficulties with importation.