Good news! The Wall Street Journal is reporting that a natural blight has reduced Afghanistan’s poppy crop this year by between 30 and 50 percent! Afghanistan, you may not know if you’ve been living in a cave for the last five years, produces 90 percent of the world’s commercial opium poppies (the pods of the gorgeous poppies that bloom wild in the California desert, Eschscholzia californica, don’t weep opium). And the fewer Afghan poppies that are harvested, the smaller the amount of opium that can be taxed by the Taliban and sold, mostly to European addicts.
Or is it good news? Common sense suggests (and economists have long argued) that the demand for opium, the feedstock for heroin, is almost certainly inelastic. This implies that a smaller crop will yield higher revenues for the Taliban to use to destabilize the current Afghani regime and to kill NATO troops. Indeed, nature seems to be doing for the Taliban what they used to do for themselves as a means of exploiting market power. In the year 2000, Mullah Omar and the gang (which then ruled most of Afghanistan unopposed) ordered a moratorium on poppy growth – apparently with the goal of increasing the value of their unsold inventories of opium from previous harvests.
Heads I win, tails you lose? That certainly seems to be the Alice-in-Wonderland policy of the United States (and the UN), which haven’t reflected much on the social, economic or geopolitical consequences of prohibition since President Nixon declared war on drugs in 1969.
Those who do contemplate the socioeconomic dimensions of hard drug use generally conclude that there is no truly painless alternative to prohibition. But there’s no getting around the reality that more American soldiers (not to mention Afghani peasants and inner-city American youth) die because we can’t bring ourselves to reexamine a policy that can only work (when it works at all) by raising the price of drugs and the profitability of the drug trade.