Bumper opium harvest fires debate over licensed production


This year’s opium harvest in Afghanistan will be ’shockingly high’, according to figures released this week by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). They estimate that the country now supplies over 90 per cent of the world’s heroin. 

The news has fuelled criticism of the current US-led strategy, which aims to eradicate the crop. Instead, there is growing support for a scheme promoted by a European think tank, the Senlis Council, which hopes to establish a trial licensing scheme that would allow farmers to sell their opium for legitimate, medicinal use. 

The Senlis Council started research into its Poppy for Medicine scheme in 2005, and in October 2007 published plans outlining exactly how a pilot scheme would run. The project has since received the backing of the European Parliament. 

Opium crop

Opium poppies contain powerful analgesic alkaloids


A key feature of the project is that farming communities could cultivate poppy crops, which would then be turned into morphine tablets in facilities built in Afghanistan. The Senlis Council says that this will help to build the infrastructure for producing medicines, and create legitimate trade and stability in the most insecure regions where insurgency is rife.

The current approach - forcibly eradicating opium crops - is interfering with the counter-insurgency operations, claims Norine MacDonald, president of the Senlis Council. ’When the crop is knee-high, tractors come in and plough the field to destroy it. The tractors are driven by Afghans but they are under the supervision of a private US military firm,’ MacDonald told Chemistry World. ’So the locals see foreigners supervising people who are destroying their livelihoods. And there is a great deal of violence and anger in response.’

But opponents of the scheme suggest that it could encourage and even increase the production of opium by creating a market for it. A spokesperson for the American foreign affairs agency, the US Department of State, told Chemistry World  that the government stands firmly behind its two-pronged ’carrot and stick’ policy - to eradicate illegal crops and provide financial incentives for farmers to grow alternatives. 

Shortage, what shortage?

The Senlis Council argues that the Afghan opium crop could be used to relieve a global shortage of opiates - and become a source of affordable analgesics, particularly within the developing world. 

’It’s true that developing countries are not using enough opiates,’ said Thomas Pietschmann, a senior researcher at the UNODC. ’But the problem is in dispensing the drugs, not in the supply of opium itself. The infrastructure simply does not exist in many of these countries to get the drugs to those who need them.’ Pietschmann added that farmers were unlikely to accept the reduced prices of licensed opium, which would be a fraction of what they can earn from sales of the illegal crop.

According to the International Narcotics Control Board, the amount of illicit opium produced in Afghanistan in 2005 was 820 tonnes - more than double the total global demand for medical opium of 382 tonnes that year. 

Opiates are widely used for pain relief in the developed world, and are mostly derived from the opium poppy. Morphine, used clinically for severe pain, is extracted directly from the poppy, and can also be methylated to produce codeine. The poppies contain other opiate alkaloids, such as thebaine, which is used to synthesise the analgesic and drug abuse treatment buprenorphine, and the veterinary immobilisation agent etorphine. 

The opiates act directly on opioid receptors in the central nervous system, and completely block the transmission of pain signals. Studying their chemistry has enabled drug companies to produce synthetic opioid analgesics more powerful than morphine, such as Johnson&Johnson’s fentanyl, making manufacturers less reliant on the supply of opium to make their drugs.

Four leading pharmaceutical companies contacted by Chemistry World declined to comment on the Senlis Council’s proposal. One pharmaceutical industry insider said that no company was likely to comment on the potential for a legal market in Afghan opium, since the idea was far too politically controversial.

Grass roots

Nevertheless, there is substantial grass roots support for the licensing scheme. Speaking from Helmand in Southern Afghanistan, MacDonald said that she had received positive feedback from farmers. ’They want a chance to use the only thing they know - growing opium - to do something legitimate,’ she said.

Norine MacDonald

Norine MacDonald with opium poppy farmers in Helmand, Afghanistan

© Senlis Council

Romesh Bhattacharji, a former Narcotics Commissioner for India, where opium production has been licensed for more than 200 years, told Chemistry World that the Poppy for Medicine scheme is ’the only hope that there is for Afghanistan’.

’It will benefit the farmers most and then the communities, and by producing morphine almost at their door step, the villages will benefit from the technology and profit from its sale,’ he said ’In Afghanistan, where there is so much pain, the consumption of morphine has now come down to almost zero.’

McDonald added that once a drug manufacturing infrastructure has been built within Afghanistan, it would provide farmers with the opportunity to grow alternative medicinal crops, such as Artemisia annua  - the plant from which the anti-malaria drug artemisinin is derived.

However, Bhattacharji cautioned that diversion of licensed opium into the black market could never be completely eradicated - a point emphasised by the US State Department, who said that ’countries which produce licit opium have strict controls, sophisticated law enforcement, and licensing systems - and still admit to significant illegal diversion’.  

Victoria Gill