The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has published a new report on poppy cultivation and opium production in
The report also contains some some ludicrous assertions and cockamamie analysis, which one suspects was dropped on the authors of the report from on high. This suspicion is strengthened by the singularly loopy statements at the launch of the document and in its Introduction by Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of the UNODC (and my former colleague on the Executive Committee of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development). Mr. Costa is one of those bureaucrats for whom the conventional scientific modes of proof - proof by deduction and proof by induction - take second place to a third mode of proof (not yet recognised as fully legitimate in scholarly discourse - proof by repeated assertion.
Even someone widely acknowledged as not the sharpest arrow in the quiver should have caught the manifest absurdity of the characterisation, in his own Introduction to the Survey, of opium as "... the world’s deadliest drug...". As regards deadliness, opium and its derivatives isn't a patch on tobacco and alcohol.
Mr. Costa’s most accurate reported statement is "The Afghan opium situation looks grim, but it is not yet hopeless,"; this statement is half right: the Afghan opium situation is both grim and hopeless. He goes on to say: "Where anti-government forces reign, poppies flourish," a correct statement of the observed statistical association between poppy production and the degree of Taliban control in Afghanistan since Taliban’s de-facto rule over the country was ended by the US-led Allied troops almost six years ago.
As a (former) social scientist, Mr. Costa must be aware of the pitfalls associated with the causal interpretation of a statistical association between two phenomena, A and B, say. The statistical association could mean that A causes B, that B causes A, that A and B are interdependent, or that some third factor (or set of phenomena), C, say, is driving (causes) both A and B, without either A influencing B or B influencing A – the ‘common third factor’ interpretation.
Mr. Costa, however, has no doubt; as far as he is concerned, Taliban control of an area causes poppy cultivation to expand in that area. The fact that when the Taliban controlled all of the country, poppy cultivation was almost wiped out, is conveniently forgotten. The Report’s policy recommendation that tackling the Taliban insurgency is key to stemming opium cultivation misses the point completely. Key to tackling the Taliban insurgency is the legalisation of the production, sale and consumption of poppy and its currently illegal derivatives, opium and heroin. This will deprive the Taliban both of political support from farmers who see their livelihoods destroyed or threatened by the Allies’ eradication efforts, and of a ready-made tax and extortion base.
Let me expand slightly: there is indeed a third ‘common (set of) factor(s)’ at work here: the main one is the fact that poppy cultivation and the production, sale and consumption of poppy derivatives such as opium and heroine are illegal almost everywhere.
The case for legalising currently illegal drugs like opium, heroin, cocaine, and various cannabis derivatives can be made on both utilitarian and libertarian grounds. The utilitarian case has recently been effectively restated by Ethan Nadelmann, in the September/October issue of Foreign Policy. The website of the Drug Policy Alliance, of which Mr. Nadelmann is founder and Executive Director, contains useful statistics, arguments, and information about drug policies worldwide. The resurgence of the odious Taliban in
 There could also be a common third factor, C, as well as interdependence between A and B.
© Willem H. Buiter 2007