Legalizing opium in Afghanistan

By Jonathan Power

Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine who lived 460-357 BC, concluded that diseases were naturally caused and were cured by natural remedies. Opium, he wrote, was one of the latter. But he was also of the opinion that it should be used sparingly and under control.

If only our governments today could take such a sanguine and informed view of the use of opiates in medicine today.

No one needs a more enlightened attitude than the Western forces now operating in Afghanistan where for years they have been committed to destroying the peasants’ main source of income. Afghanistan produces more opium that anywhere else in the world.

Some observers say this eradication programme has done much to push country people into the Taliban camp. The West has long been shooting itself in the foot.

Both the former president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf and the wise senior statesman and former finance minister Sartaj Aziz, who probably knows more about the economics of agriculture in this part of the world than anyone else, have told me that it would be more sensible for Western governments to help buy the poppy crop. This would solve two problems in one blow. First, it would help deal with the world-wide shortage of medical opiates which, according to the World Health Organization, are causing a “global pain crisis”. In Africa hundreds of thousands of people are dying in agony for lack of pain relief. Second, it would prevent the opium farmers of Afghanistan being driven into the arms of the Taliban.

There are many practical problems with the idea of buying up the crop. If the price were set too high, it might encourage even more farmers to grow opium poppies. If it were not high enough, they would go on selling at least some on the black market. Nevertheless, they would probably rather sell their crop legally than to the mafia.

How would the Muslim world react to buying up the crop? Before the U.S. invasion the Taliban with their rigorous, fundamentalist, viewpoint were against the growing of poppies and that effectively ended poppy growing. But after the invasion they turned 180 degrees and encouraged it, mainly for the purpose of providing revenue to buy military equipment.

Muslim theology over the ages, whilst vigorously anti-alcohol and even, in one period, anti-coffee, has usually smiled benignly on opium, if carefully used. It is seen as an antidote to sorrow. In some places iced poppy tea is traditionally served at funerals. I’ve heard Muslims arguing that if the West is so determined to eliminate opium it should ban alcohol.

It was Arab peoples who developed and organised the first systematic production and trade in opium. By the ninth century AD Arab scholars and physicians were publishing books on opium and its preparation.

The most serious scholar, an outstanding physician, Abu Ali al Hussein Abdullah ibn Sina, whose ‘Canon of Medicine’ was the standard text for five centuries, wrote that opium was of particular value in helping cure dysentery, diarrhoea and eye diseases. (Interestingly, today cocaine is used as an anaesthetic in eye and nasal surgery.)

For the most part it was Islamic practice only to use opium for medical, not recreational, purposes. Whereas, once opium spread westwards to Europe in the Middle Ages, opium, especially among the upper classes, became a recreational drug, producing many addicts. Few heeded the warnings of the old Arab doctors.

Shakespeare wrote of its calming effects. In “Othello” Iago says that:

Not poppy, nor mandragore,
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,
Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep,
Which thou ow’dst yesterday.

– by implication, a confession of widespread opium use (i.e. drowsy syrups). Heroin is the strongest of all pain suppressants, although a derivative, morphine, is more widely used in hospitals today. Another derivative is codeine. Although these days codeine requires a prescription, not so long ago it was available over the counter.

India, Australia, Turkey, France and Spain today are the only countries where poppy growing is legal. In India poppy growing is licensed to about 100,000 farmers. The processing is carried out at the Government Opium and Alkaloid factories in Ghazipur. It is exported to international pharmaceutical companies for the extraction of morphine or codeine.

This goes to show that with careful monitoring it should be possible to make legalizing Afghanistan’s poppy crop a success and make a major contribution to the great shortage of pain killers, especially in poorer countries.

Legalization would also save a good many lives from military action in Afghanistan and is far more likely to win “hearts and minds”.

Maybe, as Martin Booth has written in his seminal book, “Opium, it is God’s own medicine”.

Copyright © 2014 Jonathan Power

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