Thursday, August 9, 2007

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A step in the right direction

Via Mark Thoma, I see that economist Willem Buiter wrote an op-ed in the Financial Times about a policy innovation that would vastly improve America's ability to promote democracy and economic development in Latin America, while threatening the viability of terrorist networks in Afghanistan:

A pragmatic argument against criminalising drugs is that criminalisation creates vast rents and encourages criminal entrepreneurs to use violence, intimidation, bribery, extortion and corruption to extract these rents. Another pragmatic argument is that it is pointless to waste resources fighting a war that cannot be won. The losing war on drugs wastes resources that could be used to fight terrorism and other crimes.

Another important argument for legalising, in particular, all cultivation of poppy and of coca (and their illegal derivatives) is that this would take away a vital source of income and political support for terrorist move- ments, including the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces (Farc) and various paramilitary groups.

The United Nations estimates that opium production in Afghanistan grew to more than 6,000 metric tonnes last year with a value exceeding $3bn. It is the origin of more than 90 per cent of the world’s illegally consumed opiates.

A significant portion of the profits flows to the Taliban, who act as middlemen in the opium business. They combine extortion and threats of violence towards the poppy farmers with the sale of protection to these same farmers against those who would destroy their livelihood, mainly the Nato allies and the Afghan central government.

Following legalisation, the allies in Afghanistan could further undermine the financial strength of the Taliban and al-Qaeda by buying up the entire poppy harvest. If a sufficient premium over the prevailing market price were offered, the Taliban/al-Qaeda middle-man could be cut out altogether, and thus would lose his tax base. Winning the hearts and minds of poppy growers and coca growers is a lot easier when you are not seen as intent on destroying their livelihood.

This proposal for legalising poppy growing regardless of what the poppy is used for is much more radical than the proposal from the Senlis Council to license the growing of poppy in Afghanistan only for the production of essential medicines. The Senlis Council proposal would not end the problem of illicit poppy cultivation co-existing with licensed cultivation. With the illicit price likely to exceed the licit price, the Taliban would retain a significant tax base.

Is legalisation of all opiates an integral part of the proposal that the allies procure the entire poppy harvest in Afghanistan? Consider procurement without legalisation. The allies would find themselves each year with the largest stash of poppy the world has ever seen. What to do with it?...

So legalise, regulate, tax, educate and rehabilitate. Stop a losing war, get the government off our backs, beat the Taliban and deal a blow to al-Qaeda in the process. Not a bad deal!

I've said it before and I'll say it again -- drug legalization would yield enormous foreign policy benefits.

posted by Dan on 08.09.07 at 08:50 AM


A couple of things here:

Why do you need legalization? Why not just buy the poppies from the Afghan farmers and then destroy them? Surely it wouldn't be any more expensive than the $3 billion or so a year we funnel to the Egyptians, right?

And, second, even if legalization would have positive foreign policy effects, it would also, surely, have negative domestic ones, right? It seems hard to imagine that there wouldn't be *more* heroin addicts if it were legal.

posted by: Michael Simpson on 08.09.07 at 08:50 AM [permalink]

I am a Canadian journalist, author and blogger at Taking over the poppy crops might work. At least it is worth trying, but it will not get rid of Al-Qaeda. It has now dispersed into hundred of unrelated cells around the world.Even calling these groups Al-Qaeda is a misnomer. And the way to obviate their effectiveness is now a hard a complex task. Arabs, Africans, Filipinos, and Muslims around the world are appalled at the imperial invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. They are appalled at the hunger, degredation and oppression in many of their lands. And as the rhetoric from Washington, London, Ottawa and Canberra becomes more bellicose and swaggering,they see how some of their brothers have fought back and thihk they might as well do the same. No poppies won't fix it. Giving back some dignity and respect along with food and shelter just might.

posted by: John Scully on 08.09.07 at 08:50 AM [permalink]

I understand that politics is the art of the possible, etc. But why is it that some politicians and large blocs the commentariat and the public will endorse “getting our hands dirty” (“enhanced interrogation techniques” (torture), the suspension of habeus corpus and even the thousand natural shocks of commercial air transport security) because of the existential threat of terrorism, but changing drug policy is a bridge too far? I know screaming DRUGS THINKOFTHECHILDREN DRUGS presses on the reptilian core of the public brain….but shouldn’t screaming TERRORISM ALQUEDA TERRORISM trump that? What am I missing here?

posted by: the blackbird is involved on 08.09.07 at 08:50 AM [permalink]

"Why not just buy the poppies from the Afghan farmers and then destroy them?"

Not to sound like an undergradute economist (maybe its because I studied the CAP for too long) but if we offer to buy all of the crop of poppies on an ongoing basis, you will probably find that, in the second year of the program, you will have to buy more than $3 billion worth. Wise teachers, doctors etc would realise that they can start growing opium without worrying about who to sell it to.

Or are we legalising existing farmers but not new ones? Of course this isnt possible. We'd soon have an 'opium mountain.' [insert lindsay lohan one-liners here]

posted by: george on 08.09.07 at 08:50 AM [permalink]

"Another important argument for legalising, in particular, all cultivation of poppy and of coca (and their illegal derivatives) is that this would take away a vital source of income and political support for terrorist movements."

I take it this is suggesting that the U.S. legalize the production, sale, and use of cocaine and heroine? So we have RJR replacing some of their tobacco fields with poppies?

I don't see how this helps the int'l terrorism/crime problem. You've still got a large population in Afghanistan and/or Colombia that want to grow a high-income crop. Either they're going to compete with American growers (which means they'll still provide a revenue stream for the cartels and AQ), or they won't be able to compete and they'll be effectively disenfranchised. If the latter, they provide a ready source of instability for whichever organization wants to take advantage.

Full disclosure: I think fighting drugs is worth the time and treasure. It's not a great solution but it's better than the alternative where the big corps acquire legal vested interests in the recreational drug industry. And then with the lobbying and the tariffs and the subsidies...

posted by: kwo on 08.09.07 at 08:50 AM [permalink]

Drug legalization is one of those safe ideas that scattered white-collar American professionals speak up for every now and then to convince themselves they are radical and daring libertarians.

It's safe because there is no danger of its ever happening. The reason for this is that most Americans abhor drug use, think it immoral, and do not want to be associated with drug users. Therefore the necessary particulars need never be examined in any detail. Which drugs are to be legalized, how is their production and sale to be regulated and the public health protected, what are the rules respecting public intoxication and impaired driving to be for drugs used singly or in combination, to what degree are legal drug users to be protected from the inevitable discrimination: these are just the first few of a very long list of questions that would have to be answered before any one drug now illegal could be made legal.

They don't have to be answered if the only thing at stake is the striking of a pose. Legalize drugs, and you make the world a better place. Because you just do, that's why. Groovy, man.

posted by: Zathras on 08.09.07 at 08:50 AM [permalink]

"Which drugs are to be legalized"

All of them. The trouble is that, as your post implies, the discussion usually stops there. And you're correct that if nothing else changed, legalization would cause a lot of problems.

"what are the rules respecting public intoxication and impaired driving to be for drugs"

How about this: the moment drugs are legalized, every vestige of the concept of dimished capacity with respect to the use of any intoxicant (yes, including alcohol) vanishes from our legal system. In it's place - a legal stipulation that if you intentionally use any intoxicant and subsequently harm another person as a result, that harm is by definition intentional and premeditated. If, for example, you get intoxicated, drive, and kill somebody, that ceases to be intoxication manslaughter and becomes capital murder with special circumstances. I suspect problem users would wind up in prison pretty quickly. I'm not saying that would be cheap - just cheaper than what we're doing now.

"to what degree are legal drug users to be protected from the inevitable discrimination"

The same as now - no protection whatsoever. In 20 years in my profession I have never come across or heard about a new hire who smoked cigarettes, for example.

posted by: J on 08.09.07 at 08:50 AM [permalink]

Buying the poppy crop might get rid of the opium for one season but wouldn't lead to economic diversification at a local level which is what Afghanistan desperately needs - the country must be built from the ground up. The poppy for medicine proposal mentioned in the Economist article (see:
at least understands this and attempts to provide Afghans with a way to use opium as a legal resource by which they can interact positively with the state and district authorities that would oversee a poppy for medicine project. Producing morphine at a local level would mean AFghan villages were creating a value-added product that could be marketed internationally. This project doesn't claim to be a silver bullet but at least it would address for a medium-term period many of the outstanding problems in Afghanistan and attempt to fully integrate Afghans into the reconstruction process, a process which is necessary if the corruption at government level is to cease and the democracy is to survive. Why don't the international governments support projects like this rather than insisting on continuing failed eradication policies? if it's better the devil you know than the devil you don't, it's obvious that they lack the political will to support the troops they send to Afghanistan with effective policy.

posted by: Jose on 08.09.07 at 08:50 AM [permalink]

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