NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 15, 2005

Afghanistan's immense opium harvest feeds lawlessness, finances terrorism and fuels heroin addiction, but it could ease a severe shortage of opium-derived pain medication, says the New York Times' Maia Szalavitz, if Afghanistan were licensed to sell opium for the production of legal pharmaceuticals.

  • Afghanistan's opium crop has increased sevenfold since 2002 and now constitutes 60 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP).
  • Last year, it produced more than 4,200 tons of opium.
  • Nearly 10 percent of the population is involved in the trade, which supplies 90 percent of the world's illegal heroin.

But why not license Afghanistan so it can sell its opium legally and help reduce pain and trafficking problems, says Szalavitz. Supporters say that adopting this policy would improve Afghanistan?s economy, deprive terrorists of income and keep heroin away from dealers and addicts; moreover, it would offer pain relief to developing countries, which house 80 percent of the world's population.

  • Opioids, pain relievers made from opium, are "absolutely necessary" for treating severe pain, says World Health Organization (WHO), but half of the world?s countries use them rarely, if at all, for the dying.
  • In the United States, only half of all dying patients receive adequate pain relief; those suffering from chronic non-cancer pain are even more likely to be undermedicated.
  • But to meet the global need for pain medication, 10,000 tons of opium a year would be required; that?s more than twice Afghanistan's current production.

This shortfall is in part attributable to misguided regulation. Restrictions aimed at preventing diversion to the illegal market are so severe that in some countries, medical use of opioids is practically prohibited. Often, the rich retain access to expensive synthetic opioids like OxyContin, while those who cannot afford brand-name drugs receive no treatment at all. Generic morphine and codeine, made from Afghan opium, could help, says Szalavitz.

Source: Maia Szalavitz, "Let a Thousand Licensed Poppies Bloom," New York Times, July 13, 2005.

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