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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 13th January 2012

The annual UNODC Afghanistan Opium Survey has been published with details of the 2011 Papaver somniferum crop. Right from the first paragraph of the Preface the flaws in thinking resulting from the prohibitionist stance are apparent. The report begins ‘Each year, Afghan opium claims tens of thousands of lives worldwide’ and the second paragraph says ‘[Afghanistan] also faces an HIV epidemic concentrated among the country’s injecting drug users’.

Many of those thousands die as a result of engagement with criminals or a criminal lifestyle being a necessary part of obtaining heroin. Others suffer because they overdose on heroin of a higher strength than they are used to and others fall prey to illness and infection resulting from the dirty conditions in which they use their heroin. And being an IDU doesn’t mean you are at greater risk of contracting HIV. Having to use other people’s needles because the law refuses you the chance to obtain sterile equipment is the problem.

But I don’t mean to simply rant against the UNODC’s outdated and flawed arguments about drug use. I just want to point out that any conclusions reached by the UNODC are based on seeing one particular view of the situation.

Papaver somniferum, opium poppy

Papaver somniferum, opium poppy

As ever, the absolute values of opium cultivation, production and exports are questionable because of the problems of conducting a survey of illegal operations but the year on year comparisons may be helpful if one assumes that the errors in the surveys are reasonably consistent.

Those comparisons for 2011 versus 2010 make a very clear point about the futility of the existing ‘control’ regime. During 2010, the Papaver somniferum plant in Afghanistan suffered a number of plant diseases that reduced yield per hectare to much lower levels than have been seen for some time. In 2011, yield bounced back rising from 29.2 kg/ha in 2010 to 44.5 kg/ha. So, though the area under cultivation only rose 7%, total output rose 61% to 5,800 tonnes (with a range of 4,800-6,800).

At last this upturn in demand may put an end to the conspiracy theories that the poor yield in 2010 was the result of some sophisticated bio-intervention by the USA. If that were so, it would seem odd to discontinue it after one year.

In most markets, an increase in supply risks the creation of a decrease in price. In 2011, however, the farm-gate price for dry Afghan opium rose 43% to $241/kg. The increase in output and increase in price combine to give total farm-gate value of $1.4 billion 133% up from 2010’s $0.6 billion. It should be noted that the 2010 farm-gate price behaved as would be expected and was 164% above the 2009 price. Overall, therefore, opium prices have increased from $64/kg to $241/kg in just two years.

When the survey turns from farm-gate values to export values something puzzling occurs. In 2010 the ratio of farm-gate to gross export value was 2.33 (2.0 for net export value) but, in 2011 gross export value is only 1.83 times farm-gate value and net export value is 1.71 times higher than the farm-gate figure. The 2011 report gives a pie chart showing how the total value of the opium industry, broken down into farm-gate, domestic use and added value, compares to total official GDP but there is no similar chart in the 2010 report so comparison of the year on year figures is not possible.

The UNODC does acknowledge that its market value estimates are much less certain than its production figures so it may be that methodology changes, year on year, have created this anomaly.

If, however, the reduction in the ratio of export value to farm-gate price is correct it may explain why there does not seem to have been the same dramatic increase in street prices reflecting the almost quadrupling of the farm-gate price.

For a number of years, up to 2009, the value of estimated opium production has exceeded the equivalent estimated demand for heroin giving the appearance of a surplus that in theory should have been sufficient to cover the 2010 shortfall and still leave good stocks. The large increase in farm-gate price in spite of a large increase in output suggests that the notion that there are large stocks in the system is flawed. That is disappointing because it makes my personal belief/thought/hope that a build-up of stocks indicated a finite demand for heroin seem, also, flawed.

Though the estimates may be wildly inaccurate, the conclusion that opium is more profitable than wheat to the Afghan farmer looks pretty robust. Even if it is a lot less than the eleven times suggested by the UNODC it is clear that it will be more attractive. Getting farmers to forsake the opium poppy for a legitimate crop looks an impossible task.

I’ve written before, on this site and in my book, that there is no point in buying the Afghan opium crop to destroy it if there is still an illicit demand for heroin. That demand needs to be met legitimately so that there is no need for alternative growers to replace the Afghan poppy farmers. As things stand, UNODC is estimating that $1.0 billion of net ‘added value’ is available to those opposed to the rule of law in Afghanistan, and that ignores the likelihood that some of the $1.4 billion of farmers’ income has to be paid for ‘protection’.

Much of the Afghanistan Opium Survey 2011 raises questions that it doesn’t answer. The one that struck me has nothing to do with any of the estimates in the report. For some years, the annual opium surveys have been jointly published by UNODC and the Government of Afghanistan Ministry of Counter Narcotics. There hasn’t always been an opening statement but, when there has it has been signed by Antonio Maria Costa. The latest report, however, is credited as a joint publication from UNODC and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan Ministry of Counter Narcotics and the preface is jointly signed by the new UNODC Executive Director, Yury Fedotov, and the Minister of Counter Narcotics, Zarar Ahmad Moqbil Osmani.

I’m well aware that it is easy to read too much into UNODC reports and reach conclusions that are not justified by the data but I can’t help wondering if a simple thing like the signatures on this report indicate a difference of approach to the role of the UNODC by Mr Fedotov.