Drug lords have become so powerful in Afghanistan that they could strangle the entire economy. The United Nations estimates that 60 percent of Afghanistan's economy is tied to the illegal drug trade.
But senior UN officials in Kabul admit that attacking the problem by destroying poppy fields creates widespread social problems. That's because the families of many Afghan farmers depend on the crop for their survival. Meanwhile, programs aimed at developing alternative sources of income for farmers could take years to have an impact.
The Paris-based Senlis Council says it is time for international officials to consider allowing Afghan farmers to be among the small group of licensed opium producers around the world.
Emmanuel Reinert, executive director of that political-policy think tank, said: "Afghanistan is on the verge of becoming a narco-state. That could happen in the next years. So we are somehow in a crisis situation. The solutions at hand right now either will make things worse -- like eradication or forced eradication through aerial spraying -- or they will just yield results in several years. I'm thinking of alternative development that will take several years to yield results. And that would be, in a way, too late."
Yesterday, Reinert announced his group's plans to study the impact of legalized Afghan opium farms. "Such a solution will allow farmers to produce legal opium for legitimate interests, and to produce such essential medicine as morphine and codeine in the face of a huge shortage of those products in the world and, more specifically, in developing countries," Reinert said. "The idea is not to turn Afghanistan into a mono-crop economy. The device is here as a transition to complement what is done to develop the country and eventually to have a diversified Afghan economy that is a sustainable and stable economy."
Reinert said the study will be conducted by a team of 15 to 20 specialists in areas like pharmacology, economics, international law, and criminal justice. He told RFE/RL the researchers will include academics from leading Western universities, as well as experts from Afghanistan.
"The first step would be to launch one or two pilot projects in very specific regions, so you could have clear control of the farmers who cultivate those lands, to look at the way the license could work. [In this way, officials can] establish and test the list of specifications which will have to be made in order for the local authority and the central government to have a firm control over the system. Once tested, then you can take it to the wider level -- to the entire region. But the ultimate goal is not to turn the whole country into a legal producer of opium. It is to consolidate the development process," Reinert said.
Under the current international system, countries must apply for a license from the UN's International Narcotics Control Board to legally produce and sell opium for medical purposes. Farmers in countries like Australia, France, Turkey, and India are now allowed to produce opium legally under such licenses.
Reinert said interest has been expressed in the results of the study during his informal talks with UN and Afghan officials. But the plan has not yet been formally submitted.
"We've just launched a proposal for the feasibility study. So we are at the very early stage of this process. We have not introduced yet formally the proposal to the relevant authorities -- be it the UN Office on Drugs and Crime or the International Narcotics Control Board. We are going to present the preliminary results of the feasibility study at an international conference that we are going to be organizing in Kabul in September of 2005," Reinert said.
The Senlis Council was established in May 2002. Its stated goal is to address global drug policy issues in a way that stimulates debate on new ideas while avoiding what it calls "simplistic arguments."