As opium harvests in Afghanistan have steadily increased, some think tanks and politicians - mostly in Britain - have raised a trenchant question: rather than trying to eradicate Afghanistan's poppies, why not instead buy them and make morphine?
Given that the World Health Organization estimates that over 6.2 million of the world's poor are dying of cancer, AIDS, burns and wounds without adequate pain relief, the argument goes, wouldn't it make sense?
Most prominent among these proposals is an analysis by the Senlis Council, a drug-policy research group with offices in London, Brussels and Kabul. The council argues that the United States and Britain waste more than $800 million a year, as well as soldiers' lives, trying futilely to eradicate poppies.
Instead, it calculated two years ago, Afghanistan's whole crop could be purchased for about $600 million - the "farm gate" price, not the street value of the heroin into which it is refined, which is over $50 billion. (The "farm gate" estimate has gone up as the crop has increased, and may be $1 billion now.)
Whatever the price, "enforcement will not work," said Romesh Bhattacharji, a former narcotics commissioner of India who has investigated the Afghan situation for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. "The Afghan farmer will not switch to alternative crops as long as there is a market for his opium."
Mr. Bhattacharji says he now endorses the idea of buying the crop.
The United States and British governments are vigorously opposed; instead they favor tough eradication tactics and more encouragement to farmers to grow wheat, cotton or fruit.
"They're growing a poison, sir - one that kills Afghanistan's neighbors and corrupts officials," Thomas A. Schweich, chief of the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, said in a telephone interview. "There needs to be better and more forceful eradication."
There is an American precedent for buying. In the late 1960's, the Nixon administration, fighting a heroin epidemic, pressured Turkey, then the world's chief grower, to eradicate its poppy crops.
Unable to do that (both because of corruption and because peasant farmers vote) Turkey in 1974 started licensing farmers to grow for the morphine trade, and the United States in 1981 gave protected-market status to Turkey and India, obligating itself to buy 80 percent of the raw material for American painkillers from them. Why not, the Senlis Council and others argue, let Afghanistan join the legitimate supply chain? Mr. Schweich and others reply that it is simply impractical - Afghanistan grows 93 percent of the world's poppies; its crop is 15 times the size of India's.
Also, heroin smugglers pay better. For example, India officially paid its legal farmers only $20 to $50 per kilogram last year, while farmers interviewed in central India in May said illegal buyers were offering $100 to $190. Prices in Afghanistan, at roughly the same time, were about $125.
"Why would anybody switch to legal opium when they can get those prices?" Mr. Schweich asked. Making up the difference with price supports - another idea with American precedents - would cost as much as an extra $800 million.
"You can do the math," he said. "If we did it, no one in Afghanistan would grow any other crop, we'd be paying billions for it, and it would become a narco-welfare state."
The idea meets opposition from other quarters, too. Jagjit Pavadia, the current narcotics commissioner of India, said in an interview that if the world becomes ready to buy more morphine for the dying poor she would like Indian farmers to benefit first. Because of falling demand, India has slowly cut its licensed farmers from 150,000 to 62,000.
A third-generation opium farmer in Neemuch, India, was even more adamant. "We have 150 years' experience in selling to government," said Ramchandra Nagda, who also grows wheat, garlic and spices. "There is better control here than there ever will be in Afghanistan."
The United Nations drugs office estimates that heroin rings buy about 30 percent of India's crop, despite the efforts of 1,200 narcotics control bureau officers. Diversion in Afghanistan, a lawless warlord state, would presumably be far harder to control.
In the British press, there is some serious discussion of the Senlis proposal. But in the United States, the idea has attracted little attention. The council attributes this partially to the lobbying power of the religious right and law enforcement groups, both of which react with horror to any talk of legalization.
"It's almost theological, their opposition to our idea," said Norine MacDonald, the council's founder.
Also, both she and Mr. Bhattacharji said, with a $600 million annual budget for eradication, the field attracts paramilitary contractors with deep connections to the Bush administration, including Blackwater USA and DynCorp International, both of whom train Afghan anti-narcotics police.
Mr. Schweich called such a view "cynical and inaccurate" and maintained that local Afghan governors were the leading force in eradication, though he agreed that their efforts were plagued with nepotism and corruption.
In any case, many experts - even those favoring the use of Afghanistan's crop for morphine - say it does not change one looming reality: the heroin trade is so large and so lucrative that someone, somewhere, is going to grow the poppies for it.
© 2007 The New York Times