Sam Uretsky

Afghan Opium Still Flows

Some people, well intentioned, were induced to vote for George W. Bush and his repugnant colleagues, under the misguided impression that the right wing would offer protection from international terrorism. What's missing from that logic, aside from the basic element of truth, is the fact that the policies that have presumably protected us from one threat may have increased the risk of another: crime in the streets.

Evidently the War on Terrorism has taken the spotlight from the War on Drugs. Unfortunately, if the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) is right, the drug problem is back -- and if US Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) is right, the Department of Defense isn't interested in doing anything about it.

The report from the INCB describes seizures of fenetylline, a central nervous system stimulant similar to amphetamine, and cannabis (marijuana). Jordanian police have captured chemicals used in converting opium to heroin and also diazepam (better known by its brand name of Valium), which, although a controlled drug in most nations, is freely available in Iraq.

The report, which shows that the United Nations remains a center of diplomacy, says that the Iraqi government is cooperating fully in the effort to stem the drug traffic, but "the fragile security situation has limited the assistance that could be delivered so far."

Professor Hamid Ghodse, president of the INCB, said, "The pattern is similar to what we have seen in other post-conflict situations. Whether it is due to war or disaster, weakening of border controls and security infrastructure make countries into convenient logistic and transit points, not only for international terrorists and militants but also for drug traffickers."

An important consideration makes this situation unique. Afghanistan had cut back on its opium production and Iraq was not a major trade route for narcotics before the US took over.

On May 19, Souder issued a background statement about the Afghani drugs trade. "The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has conducted annual opium poppy surveys in Afghanistan since 1994. The 2004 Survey shows that Afghanistan produced 87% of the world's illicit opium this year, resulting in income to Afghan opium farmers and traffickers on the order of $2.8 billion, a sum equivalent to 60% of the legitimate GDP of the country." The UNODC 2003 report held, "out of this drug chest, some provincial administrators and military commanders take a considerable share ... Terrorists take a cut as well ... the longer this happens, the greater the threat to security within the country and on its borders."

Statistics on narcotics-related crimes are questionable at best -- most of the people involved in the War on Drugs or the War on Crime have a vested interest in inflating the figures, but the current available numbers indicate that there are 25,000 deaths each year from narcotics and related illicit drugs. Drugs from Afghanistan have been estimated at 7% to 10% of the total, although this may be a low figure in view of the dramatic increase in the level of opium production in the past 2-3 years.

According to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), Afghan poppy cultivation in 2004 was estimated at 798 square miles compared to 236 in 2003, representing a 239% increase. If all the Afghani opium were converted to heroin, it would total 582 metric tons. Columbia and Mexico together produce 22 metric tons of heroin a year.

It's remotely possible that the Bush administration is onto something here. By unleashing the vaunted forces of the free market, there may be so much heroin available on the street market that all the profits will go out of the business. The drug cartel, faced with a supply glut, will find that it's more remunerative to take jobs at Wal-Mart.

But if that's the case, then why is the Department of Defense asking for $315 million to help control the narcotics trade in Afghanistan? For all the good that money is doing, we might as well offer a few more tax cuts to Republican contributors.

Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y.

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