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June 17, 2009 / jeni

Reading List: The Opium Curse

reading2If you are anything like me, you have a stack of reading material several feet high on your desk, a running list of books and articles to acquire, and a dozen tabs open on Firefox at all times.  There is simply too much to read, most of the time. Yet once in a while something comes along that I think the readers of this blog would appreciate, but that I know I won’t be able to get into for a bit. I’d like to acknowledge these under the Reading List header: pieces that seem really interesting but that I cannot at all vouch for yet (caveat lector !)

This week’s entry: Opium for the Masses? Conflict-induced Narcotics Production in Afghanistan (University of Oslo)

…war conditions are both destructive and creative. Military actions destroy existing lines of production, and new illegal opportunities arise as law enforcement becomes weaker. The traditional explanation for why the production of illegal substances is so high in conflict areas, however, focuses on drugs-for-arms strategies. This explanation rests on centralized power within rebel organizations or governments, where strongmen organize the growing of illegal substances to finance military campaigns.

We emphasize a reverse mechanism, what we call conflict-induced narcotics production. It rests on more fragmented power where local producers and leaders react to military activities by raising drug production; not because they want to hoard cash to buy arms, but because the production decisions reflect a new social and economic situation, and a shorter time horizon. In the case of Afghanistan, the key is the observation that opium cultivation requires a minimum of investments and provides a maximum of economic turnover. These are desirable features under the political instability generated by conflict.

Why do production decisions change? Opium is more drought resistant than wheat, the main alternative crop, and opium does not require road transportation. Military activities that destroy infrastructure such as irrigation and roads therefore make opium relatively more profitable…

Violence and political instability also make it possible to ignore the law (large production notwithstanding, opium has been illegal in Afghanistan since 1945 (UNODC, 1949)). As David Keen (2000, p. 22) stresses, conflicts should be regarded as “the emergence of an alternative system of profit, power, and even protection.” The social stigma attached to illegal activities easily vanishes, expected punishment declines, and local protection is taken over by militia leaders and warlords. A fragmented state enables warlords and local leaders to earn a living by protecting poppy cultivators, opium traders, and laboratories…

Since the physical conditions and climate are extremely well suited for opium production in Afghanistan, a large change in opium production can come about by a small alteration in incentives caused by conflicts. The physical and social conditions for poppy cultivation and heroin production constitute the opium curse of Afghanistan, we argue, where illegal displaces legal production.


Leave a Comment
  1. m4k2004 / Jun 17 2009 15:21

    Definitely sounds like good reading material. I will definitely have to read it.

  2. kiers / Jun 18 2009 18:27

    oh great. we have here the rational economic framework for the production of opium! i wonder if it will stand up in New York Federal court…must advise my posse about this…!

    “Milord…we are not drug dealers…but rather rational profit maximizing agents operating under ricardian trade conditions, whilst merely seeking the most optimal micro economic equilibria of our physical plant (no pun int) in an uncertain economy”
    Judge: “I say what a fine fellow…case dismissed. come round for tea and crumpets to chambers!

    I personally think the first argument is more meaningful!


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