Poppies to pills

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

SCOTT JAGOW: President Bush has chosen a war czar. Lieutenant General Douglas Lute will oversee the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, Lute might also have to be a drug czar. One of his jobs will be to crack down on the opium trade. The U.S. has tried to get rid of the source of the drug, but that hasn't worked. Commentator Reza Aslan says it's time for a new approach.


REZA ASLAN: Poppy cultivation has become such an entrenched part of Afghanistan's economy, that in large parts of the country opium is considered legal tender.

It has replaced cash in day-to-day transactions.

Poppy seeds cost little to buy, can grow in the driest environments, and offer a huge return on investments. Afghan farmers have neither the means nor the incentive to plant alternative crops.

No wonder the eradication policy pursued by the Afghan government and the United States has been such a miserable failure. All this policy has managed to do is push opium prices higher by temporarily reducing poppy cultivation.

One think tank, Senlis Council, has come up with a better solution. They want the Afghan government to regulate and license poppy cultivation for the international pharmaceutical market.

They believe that Afghanistan can become one of the leading producers of painkillers like codeine and morphine.

This is not a new idea. Turkey and India have international poppy licensing agreements. Both countries transformed their illegal narcotics problem into a flourishing business exporting raw opium.

The government in Kabul has shown interest in the idea of licensing poppy cultivation, knowing it could make hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Yet so far the Bush Administration has balked at the proposal. They say it would only encourage the country's illicit drug trade.

But this is more than just a drug enforcement problem. It is a national security issue for both Afghanistan and the U.S.

Afghanistan's illegal opium production actively funds the Taliban, which is using the money to regroup for a spring offensive.

Licensing and regulating poppy cultivation could serve as a major step in winning the war on terror.

JAGOW: Reza Aslan's book is called "No God but God."

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