Monday, February 15, 2010

Russia and Iran’s Afghan Heroin Nightmare

I have an article up in the Counterpunch print edition about the impact of Afghan opium production on Iran and Russia.

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The colossal spike in Afghan opium production has had a direct and deleterious influence on Russia, Iran, and the Central Asian stans that lie on the smuggling routes to Europe.

Addiction rates have increased by as much as 100% since 2001, creating a major public health burden, particularly in Russia. Well-armed and financed gangs kill, corrupt, and erode social order throughout the region.

Both Iran and Russia have mounted massive efforts to interdict the flow of Afghan drugs. Iran has spent almost a billion dollars militarizing its eastern border and has had over a thousand border guards die in engagements with drug smugglers.

Russia considers heroin-related mortality an important factor in its demographic crisis. President Medvedev has declared illegal drugs Russia’s “national disaster” and is even considering drug tests for schoolchildren in order to get a handle on the problem.

Both countries bitterly reproach the United States for its dismal and equivocal efforts to control the drug trade. The United States has clearly tolerated and perhaps even expedited the Afghan opium industry since so many of its allies inside Afghanistan deal drugs.

In 2009, the U.S. formally abandoned the opium eradication goals to which it had previously paid lip service, in order to avoid alienating Afghan farmers. The focus, it insisted, would switch to opium traffickers, though one would expect that the list of approved targets excludes useful government officials, vital warlords, and potential “good Taliban” that the U.S. is attempting to lure into the Kabul government.

The U.S. has largely ignored Russia and Iran’s difficulties, raising the suspicion that the U.S. might view the exploding drug problems in these hostile states as a major and perhaps even intended benefit of the laissez-faire approach to opium production inside Afghanistan.

One also gets the impression that some ideologues are happy to take a “blame the victim”/”survival of the fittest” route and regard the heroin problem as a gigantic, nation-wide stress test whose primary significance and utility is to reveal the weaknesses of authoritarian regimes.

One issue I didn’t go into in the article is the role of prohibition in exacerbating the problem.

Opium gets a bad rap, particularly because of its link to the Opium Wars in 19th century and its exploitation as a medium of Western economic and military penetration into China.

However, Frank Dikotter, of the School of Oriental and Asian Studies (SOAS), argued in his 2003 paper, 'Patient Zero': China and the Myth of the 'Opium Plague', that opium use itself did not create immense social problems in China.

Before the development of our current arsenal of medicines, opiates were recognized as a most effective analgesic, a sovereign treatment for diarrhea (Imodium hails from the same pharmacological roots) and a useful palliative for the agonies of malarial fever, an endemic problem in southern China.

When the British brought Indian opium to China in large quantities in the 19th century, it was combined with another imported drug—tobacco—into an efficient delivery system employing a lot of pleasing paraphernalia like fancy pipes, and became a recreational drug for the upper class. As opium became cheaper, its use spread to less affluent users.

Despite the explosive growth of opium consumption—it was claimed that 90% of the population of Fujian province used opium-- the easy availability of opium does not seem to have created a nation of drug fiends.

Dikotter writes:

Opium houses, contrary to the myth of the opium den as a dark and depraved trap in which the opium lamp threw a feeble light on the gaping mouths of dazed addicts, were respectable sites of male sociability where moderate amounts of opium could be shared together with tea, fruit, sweets, snacks and food. In a culture of restraint, opium was an ideal social lubricant…

Iran’s centuries-old tradition of recreational and medicinal opium use is quite similar to China’s. Opium use was tolerated in high and low classes and opium paraphernalia appeared as dowry gifts at marriage time.

Imperial China’s decision to go to war against opium—and hype the damage it inflicted on the nation’s morals and social fabric--probably involved issues of sovereignty, social control, and economics more than public health.

Indeed, Chinese governments suppressed opium at least three times, primarily for political reasons: during the 19th century, in an effort to buttress imperial control against Western and domestic threats; in the early 20th century, as part of the new republic’s drive to claim membership in the family of nations; and by the Communists asserting their absolute dominance of China’s social space after their victory in 1949.

It might be noted, by the way, that the Chinese experience has occasionally demonstrated perverse incentives to prohibition.

Profits from the sale of morphine manufactured in Japanese-run plants in occupied China to drug traffickers—inflated by the high price obtainable for a banned product—was allegedly an important source of income for the Japanese authorities.

During the same period, Chiang Kai-shek relied on the muscle of the Green Gang—fueled to a significant extent by the profitable trade in illegal narcotics—to consolidate the KMT’s control over Shanghai.

For both contemporary Russia and Iran, anti-drug crusades provide a useful enemy that permits the state to present itself as the public’s protector against addiction, immorality, and crime.

Russia is using anti-drug rhetoric to carve out a new regional security role for itself in Central Asia as it tries to deal with NATO excluding Moscow and selfishly hogging the terrorism threat franchise in Afghanistan. Citing the ravages of Afghan heroin on the health and security of Russia and the stans, Moscow is using anti-drug cooperation as a vehicle to inject doctrine, institutions and, it hopes, border guards and troops, into the ex-Soviet republics of its “near beyond”.

Iran’s anti-drug campaign buttresses the legitimacy of the theocratic government as a protector of Islamic morals, and allows the regime to burnish its international reputation as a responsible actor.

Prohibition provides the state with certain opportunities, but also brings new problems.

Reading the Western literature on drug addiction, one realizes that managing an illicit drug problem is a major challenge even for a prosperous and open society and is probably well beyond the capabilities of economically and politically shaky states like Russia and Iran.

There is one aspect of the drug issue that has been demonstrated time and again to the point it can’t be questioned: opium prohibition breeds heroin addiction.

When opium production and use is driven under ground, traffickers and users switch to the more concentrated and easier to conceal forms of morphine and heroin.

It happened in China in the 1930s and has happened spectacularly in Afghanistan, where it is estimated that 70% of opiates now leave the country as heroin.

Heroin addiction, by itself, is not necessarily the end of the world.

There are apparently worse things in the world than to be addicted to heroin, if it is legal, inexpensive, sanitary, and readily obtainable.

Illicit heroin is another matter.

In addition to generating more profits per shipment and more corruption, crime, and violence than the equivalent volume of opium, illicit heroin brings a major public health issue that is a major contribution to mortality: needle sharing.

Dirty needles have been a problem long before the emergence of AIDS and Hepatitis C

According to Dikotter, shared needles were a major vector for syphilis, lung disease, and nephritis in the 1930s in China:

Wu Liande, a medical expert based in Harbin during his fight against a plague epidemic, also observed how thousands of morphine victims died every year of neglect, starvation and septicemia caused by dirty needles. In the cities of Harbin, Changchun and elsewhere in Manchuria the public health services had to bury hundreds of bodies found by the road with injection marks.

It would appear that legalization of opium and heroin may not be the social and public health catastrophe we have been led to expect.

On the other hand, the financial and human costs of opiate prohibition are immense.

It is sobering (!) to think that our political leaders orchestrate the movement of tens of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of armed men and women around the world—and absorb the loss of thousands of lives to addiction and violence—while enriching narcotics traffickers to the tune of over $200 billion every year in a largely ineffective attempt to suppress the trade of 6000 tons of plant sap produced in one of the poorest and most remote nations on earth.

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