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United States Opposes Legalizing Opium Poppy Crop in Afghanistan

05 June 2007

State Department official warns of dangers in allowing legal cultivation

Washington -- Legalizing the opium poppy crop in Afghanistan would be disastrous for that country and for the world, a U.S. State Department official says.

Ambassador Thomas Schweich, the U.S. coordinator for Afghan counternarcotics and justice reform, told USINFO in a May 31 interview that legalizing poppy, which is used to make heroin, “can’t work” in a country where poppy growing is funding an insurgency against the Afghan government.  Afghanistan is the largest producer of opium globally and provides 93 percent of the world’s heroin.

Legalization proposals do not withstand “even modest analytical scrutiny,” said Schweich, who quoted Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s statement that “if we do not destroy poppy, poppy will destroy us.”

Schweich, who is also principal deputy assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, cited India as an example of the dangers of legal poppy being diverted to the illicit market.  That country, he said, recently reduced its legal cultivation of poppy from 21,000 hectares to 8,000 hectares.

The Indian government, he said, made that reduction because of the “bleeding off” of legal poppy to the illegal drug market.

Schweich said even India, with a well-developed democracy, a functioning police force and an established rule of law, could not “control the runoff [of legal poppy] to the illegal market.”

Legalizing 165,000 hectares of poppy in cultivation in Afghanistan, with its much weaker rule of law, especially in areas controlled by the Taliban insurgency, would be “very, very infeasible,” said Schweich.

He said Pakistan virtually eliminated its poppy problem through “aggressive law enforcement,” which included eradication of the crop.  Pakistan achieved its desired result without legalization, said Schweich.

The overall U.S. commitment to counternarcotics in Afghanistan amounts to about $500 million a year, said Schweich.

That commitment includes an alternative crop development program for farmers now growing poppy, eradication of the crop, interdiction activities against narco-traffickers, and narcotics-related prosecutions.  The State and Defense departments, and the Agency for International Development provide most of the U.S. counternarcotics funding for Afghanistan.

The Senlis Council, a public policy group based in Europe and Afghanistan, has proposed turning legally grown Afghan poppy into pain-killing medicines such as morphine.

The Senlis Council said the U.S.-led international community’s counternarcotics strategy in Afghanistan has “aggravated” the country’s security situation.

Schweich said the world needs morphine and other types of painkillers processed from poppy.  But these painkillers should come from India and Turkey, which have U.N.-sanctioned “licensing schemes” to grow poppy legally.


Another major argument against legalization, Schweich said in the interview, is the issue of the price of illegal versus legal poppy.  Poppy on the legal market costs $16-$49 per kilo versus about $138 per kilo on the illegal market, giving Afghan farmers no incentive to switch to the legal market unless a system of massive subsidies is used to make up the price difference.

Only 15 percent of the Afghan population now is involved in opium poppy growing, Schweich said, but with a guaranteed high price, poppy “is all anybody is going to grow.”  A high volume of poppy lowers its drug price and increases purity, “two effects you always see with a high degree of supply for any narcotics substance,” said Schweich.

He said a dramatically increased supply of legal poppy would raise the cost of a subsidy to many billions of dollars per year, “with no end in sight,” turning Afghanistan into a “narco-welfare state.”

Schweich said the U.S. effort to eliminate poppy in Afghanistan has resulted in very positive trends, especially in several northern provinces -- such as Balkh – where there is relatively little insurgent activity.

But he expressed regret that U.S.-backed counterdrug policies have been “completely unsuccessful” in several southern Afghan provinces – such as Helmand and Uruzgan -- which are afflicted by Taliban activity, high levels of government corruption and a lack of “political will” to attack the problem.

An improved U.S.-backed effort against Afghan poppy growing, said Schweich, will include prosecution of corrupt Afghan officials who are enabling the narcotraffickers to operate.

He added that the “highest levels” of the Afghan government recognize the need to eliminate poppy in the country, and that Afghanistan has a “lot of really committed people” fighting narcotics.

Additional information about U.S. policy on opium poppy in Afghanistan and the Afghanistan section of the State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report are available on the State Department Web site.

(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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