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Opium production must be made legal in Afghanistan to end the country's heroin addiction crisis and bolster its economy, says an international drug policy think-tank.

In a report out this week (26 September), the Senlis Council calls for illegal opium poppy fields in Afghanistan to be licensed to produce opium-based medicines such as morphine and codeine, of which there is a desperate shortage in the developing world.

Until now, international efforts to eradicate poppy farming in Afghanistan have focused on offering money to local farmers to grow alternative crops. But the commercial value of growing poppies is so high that most farmers are reluctant to stop.

Opium accounts for 60 per cent of the nation's economic output. A 2004 UN study showed that despite ongoing efforts to abolish it, the country's opium production had grown for the third year in a row.

US calls for Afghanistan's poppy fields to be destroyed are shortsighted, says the Senlis Council, because this would leave farmers with little alternative income. Meanwhile, the ban on the narcotic means that all the opium produced ends up fuelling the illegal drug trade.

The council suggests that Afghanistan follow the example of India, where 130,000 farmers legally grow poppies bought by the United Nations and United States to produce pain-relief medicines. These preferential trade agreements mean India has a guaranteed market for most of the opium it produces.

The Senlis report says a 'medical use' drug policy would help the country's development, in contrast to the current policy. It adds that the legalisation of opium production in Afghanistan would need to be accompanied by strong control systems.

At the report's launch, the council's executive director Emmanuel Reinert said that Afghanistan could develop its own patented opium medicines, for which it would need to pursue preferential trade agreements with Europe and Asia.

An editorial in The Lancet last week (24 September) says that 'zero tolerance' drug policies have had disastrous health consequences in other developing countries, such as Colombia. There, US pesticide-spraying to destroy coca plants also damaged food crops.

This strategy has done little to reduce overall cocaine production, but the loss of income and food has led to malnutrition, extreme poverty and civil war, says the editorial.

Of the council's report, it adds "this may be the only chance Afghanistan has to solve its drug problem … and [meet] the vital public health objective of supplying essential medications to the developing world".

Link to full editorial in The Lancet*

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29 September update: The government of Afghanistan rejected the call to legalise opium production. "Poor security in the country means there are simply no guarantees that opium won't be smuggled out of the country for the illicit narcotics trade abroad," says the Aghan Minister for Counter Narcotics, Habibullah Qaderi.

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