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Afghans to consider legalising opium production By Andrew Jack in London
Afghan farmers could from next year be able to grow opium for legal medicinal purposes, under an innovative plan designed to curb illegal production being drawn up by a drug policy think-tank.
The Senlis Council, a group that studies narcotics, is in preliminary talks with international organisations and Afghan regional administrations to garner their support for pilot programmes designed to tackle the country's problem with opium by using it to produce the legal painkillers codeine and morphine.
The council, due to present in September a feasibility study funded by a dozen European social policy foundations, calculates that Afghan farmers and intermediaries could receive revenues from the scheme that almost match their current earnings from unauthorised opium production for smuggling abroad.
The plan could help bring greater stability to Afghanistan and reduce illegal flows of opium to the rest of the world.
It could also help fill developing nations' large demand for painkillers. The group calculates this demand could be for twice the amount of Afghanistan's annual opium harvest.
"This may be the only chance Afghanistan has to solve its drug problem," said Emmanuel Reinert, co-ordinator of the study for the Senlis Council, who emphasised that discussions were at an early stage.
He hoped agreement for pilot projects could be reached later this year. "We think there are some good possibilities for shifting the debate," Mr Reinert said.
He said the plan had met cautious interest from officials including Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, although some members of the Afghan cabinet and foreign governments had expressed concern it could undermine current efforts to eradicate domestic opium production.
However, he argued neither eradication nor alternative employment programmes provided a realistic short-term alternative for Afghan farmers of opium, which accounts for an estimated 60 per cent of the country's gross domestic product and 80 per cent of the world's illegally consumed heroin.
The Senlis plan is modelled on programmes in India and Turkey, which have helped reduce illegal opium production through a strictly supervised licensing scheme backed by the US Congress.
Congress requires 80 per cent of painkillers for the US market to use materials originating from these two countries.
Mr Reinert said Turkey may be supportive because Afghan drug smuggling threatens its security, while India may resist new suppliers of painkillers.