Opium Suppression in Afghanistan Was a US-led Failure
No single factor can explain the recent swift collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government. But one underappreciated mistake has been Washington’s long-running effort to suppress the cultivation of opium poppies in Afghanistan and, in turn, the production of heroin and other opioids. The campaign most likely had little effect on the amount of poppy grown. Instead it shifted cultivation to Taliban-controlled territories, bolstering the militia’s revenues.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Afghanistan accounted for 85 percent of global opium production in 2020. Poppies are a labor-intensive crop, perfectly suited to a country with a large agrarian population and few off-farm income opportunities. Poppy also thrives in Afghanistan’s soil and climate conditions, as well as its weak governance and corruption.
American efforts to suppress poppy cultivation, either through direct eradication or through incentives to grow other crops, failed to account for the basics of supply and demand. Suppression policies focus on shrinking supply, which means a fixed quantity of opium will become more expensive to produce. These policies involve a mix of threats to destroy poppy fields and the provision of resources (such as fertilizers) to encourage farmers to cultivate other crops. But if demand is not very sensitive to price increases, the quantity demanded will change little in response to the reduction in supply.
It is likely, for two reasons, that the demand for opium is not very sensitive to price. First, research finds consumer demand to be modestly elastic. Second, and more importantly, “farm-gate” prices of opium account for a small share of traffickers’ costs. Smuggling opiates to retail markets entails high risks and large costs, such as dealing with
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