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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 7th October 2011

Personally, I no longer mark anniversaries. No birthdays, wedding anniversaries, Christmas, New Year or Easter. It’s been that way for a number of years and, now, I genuinely find some ‘important’ date has passed without my noticing. That’s not possible, of course, for things like Christmas where the commemoration is marked by the media and becomes impossible to avoid.

The media, also, is usually the reason I become aware of anniversary events with significance in world politics and I do find those of much more interest. Today, for example, is the tenth anniversary of the start of the war in Afghanistan.

I hesitated before I typed ‘war’ because I’m not sure I know what it is that has been going on in Afghanistan for all this time. Looking back, it seems surprising that the USA and its allies could embark on such a protracted military operation on the basis of less than one month’s preparations. I’m taking as true the notion that it was the 11th September attacks that brought about the decision to remove the Taliban but I rather suspect that the desirability or otherwise of such a course of action had been considered before then.

I’ve decided not to look back and see what was actually said about what was happening in Afghanistan but just to rely on my recall. As I recall, the idea of overthrowing the Taliban was to remove the safe haven Afghanistan provided for Al Qaeda. Almost as an afterthought, it was said that there was a need to create a stable modern government in Afghanistan that would extend rights to all Afghans and, as a result, prevent the Taliban returning to power.

What happened, of course, was that Al Qaeda, if it ever had been based in Afghanistan, removed itself to other places like Pakistan and Yemen and the Taliban decided to run for the mountains and wage guerrilla war on the NATO forces rather than try and remain in power. And that’s how what should have been a quick attack using overwhelming modern force has dragged out into ten years, so far, of sneak attacks, suicide bombings, concealed roadside devices and all the other things we hear about all too frequently.

Papaver somniferum, opium poppy

At some stage, some people decided that the intention of the war was (also) to cripple the production of opium from Papaver somniferum, grown especially in the south of the country. For a number of years, opium produced from poppies grown in Afghanistan accounted for over 90% of the estimated world production. During those years, production greatly exceeded demand so that, it is believed, a substantial stockpile of either unprocessed opium or heroin was built up.

In more recent years, the area under poppy has decreased but it still looks more like adjusting production to suit demand rather than a response to interdiction activities. I’ve said, many times, that attempting to deal with the harm caused by psychoactive substances by restricting supply is futile because there will always be someone else willing to step in to deal with demand. As well as seeing other producers increasing poppy cultivation as Afghanistan’s has declined, we’ve seen a switch to other substances.

Various things have been tried to limit poppy growing in Afghanistan. The latest plan, which has been latched onto by the media as the silver bullet solution, is for Afghan farmers to grow Crocus sativus, the crocus that provides saffron. Saffron is undoubtedly a very expensive substance and growing it provides a good income for farmers. However, one reason for its cost is that it is difficult to produce and transport and you have to wonder if Afghanistan has the infrastructure to be able to produce product of the required quality. It has also been suggested that the growing cycle of Crocus sativa is different to that of Papaver somniferum so that farmers may well be able to produce both crops in rotation.

It is hard not to think that, regardless of what happens in the political arena over the next ten years, unless changes are made to the way the world tries to deal with psychoactive substances, Afghanistan will still be beset with the problems arising from the large scale criminal activity associated with the production of heroin.