Monday, October 08, 2007

What's Wrong With This Picture? The Afghan Poppy Problem

It was just announced that Canada will be sending another $25 million in food aid to Afghanistan, in addition of course to our ongoing military mission to chase away the Taliban and win the "hearts and minds" of Afghani citizens. In other news, the US government continues to raze crops all over the country in its (failing) efforts destroy the local opiate industry. Poppies are the target of destruction, but of course food crops are also taken out as collateral damage. Just a guess, but it seems unlikely that any of this is helping with the hearts and minds thing.

Although the US White House and State Department are pushing to ramp up "the war on poppies" by spraying the country with herbicides, an increasing number of voices now seem to think that this would be a bad idea - Afghan President Hamid Karzai and even the CIA and Pentagon worry such a move would further destabilize the country. Some, such as the SENLIS council and U of Toronto chemist John Polanyi have even advocated creative solutions, such as legalizing Afghan opiate production to supply the legal market for medicinal painkillers like morphine and codeine. But is demand for medicinal opiates high enough for the global market to absorb a massive influx of Afghani crops while maintaining sustainable pricing? Apparently a staggering 93% of the world's opiates are currently produced in Afghanistan. Presumably, right now all of this is going onto the "black" market. So, by my rough non-economist calculations this would mean about a 10-fold increase in medicinal opiate supply if the Afghan industry were suddenly legalized. Who's going to buy the stuff? Are doctors going to be suddenly prescribing 10-fold more opiate pain-killers?

Anyway I'm no economist, but hopefully some smart person with a calculator is trying to figure out something useful that could be done with Afghanistan's poppies. It seems a strange irony that the same red flowers Canadians wear to remember our fallen veterans are now at the center of a war our troops are currently fighting.


Anonymous Coward said...

According to Reuters, "The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has also rejected the Senlis Council proposal, saying it risked creating confusion among farmers and raising false expectations. Senlis has estimated the worldwide shortage of morphine and codeine at about 10,000 tonnes of opium equivalent a year, while Afghanistan produces roughly 4,000 tonnes of opium a year. However, the UNODC, while conceding there is a shortage of narcotics for medical purposes, says lawful production of opiates worldwide had considerably exceeded global consumption in the past years and could be increased should demand increase."

Anonymous said...

My understanding, based on a lengthy CBC story, was that the variety of poppies useful for medicinal purposes (pain management) cannot be adapted to the growing conditions in Afganistan. Beneficial medicines cannot be produced from the Afghan crops. If this CBC story was correct it is a misconception that the Afghan poppies have any value as a "legal" commodity.

Bayman said...

Interesting. Who to believe? And what exactly does shortage mean anyway? At least here in Canada, I've never heard of anyone having to wait on a back-ordered painkiller prescription, surgeries being put on hold for lack of tylenol 3 or morphine, or physicians themselves rationing prescriptions.

I'm sure availability is different in less affluent countries, but is this disparity actually caused by insufficient global supply? Agricultural produce seems to be currently produced to surplus, yet a lot of people still starve. Do production levels have anything at all to do with economics anymore in a globalized world driven by mass-production?

Bayman said...

Interesting point if it's true that Afghan poppies that are useless for medicine. It sounds fishy to say that materials for medicinal opiates can't be grown in a place that already grows 93% of the total world production under third world conditions. But what do I know?

Does anyone have any more facts on the biology of painkiller production? Is a different natural compound used to make heroine versus morphine or codeine? Is a different type of poppy needed to produce some-sort of specific medicinal precursor compound? Can this poppy only be grown in not-Afghanistan?

Bayman said...

Excellent current NYT article discusses global consumption of opiate painkillers:

"Six countries — the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Britain and Australia — consume 79 percent of the world’s morphine, according to a 2005 estimate. The poor and middle-income countries where 80 percent of the world’s people live consumed only about 6 percent."

"Nor is it expensive, even by the standards of developing nations. One hospice in Uganda, for example, mixes its own liquid morphine so cheaply that a three-week supply costs less than a loaf of bread."

"Doctors in developing countries, he explained, often have beliefs about narcotics that prevailed in Western medical schools decades ago — that they are inevitably addictive, carry high risks of killing patients and must be used sparingly, even if patients suffer."

The article also has some interesting discussion on prevalence of cancer in developing nations.

Bayman said...

Link to the above-cited NYT article (awesome) since it didn't show up as visible:

Bayman said...

Above-cited NYT article.