Prohibition doesn't Work

Since the 2001 US and allied invasion of Afghanistan one of the major international efforts has been to reduce the output of opium from Afghanistan. Nonetheless, since 2001 the output has been increasingly, however the September 2010 report from the UN indicates there has been a nearly 50% reduction in the potential production of opium for all of Afghanistan, however it also notes a 38% increase in the total farm-gate value of opium production; that is the total value of the opium produced nearly doubled despite halving the output. This is representative of the generally failed US and international policy with respect to opium (and illicit drugs in general).

The primary way the United States and allies attempt to reduce opium production is by destroying the farms used to grow it. This is an unfortunately poor strategy in that it is both ineffectual and works against long-term US goals in the region. Despite eradicating 2316 (units not available) in opium production there was a 1% increase in the number of households involved in opium production. Secondly, most of the people cultivating opium in Afghanistan are doing it because it is the best job available to them (which explains why despite nearly a decade of US efforts, there are more households involved in opium production than ever), destroying their means of production (and making a living) doesn’t advance any US goal, rather it ensures that we’ll have enemies for years to come: all the people whom we’ve deprived of their livelihood.

Attempting to police opium production in Afghanistan requires a significant use of both US troops and Afghan troops. Time after time we have heard generals testify before the US congress on the need for more troops in Afghanistan, yet they are wasted on missions that serve neither the United States nor Afghanistan. Investing any capital or lives into these missions represents a poor use of are resources in an environment where there are far better uses for them.

Finally, since prohibitions inevitably target the means of productions it doesn’t address the root, economic, cause for the production: there is demand. So long as people are willing to buy opium in various forms and it is profitable to do so people will attempt to produce and sell it, and driving up the costs of production will drive up the sale price, and ultimately the profit for those participating in the production (the UN report notes a 36% increase in gross income per hectare of opium). That’s not to say attempting to stop the demand would be effectual, the US has some of the harshest laws for Marijuana possession and the only tangible result is the highest rate of imprisonment in the developed world. Rather, history should show us that prohibitions are ineffectual (though it took the US 13 years from 1920-1933 to recognize this); solutions such as regulation and taxation are far more practical.

Attempted reductions in opium production fail to support US or Afghan long term strategies and actively inhibit the support both desperately need for the local population. This prohibition is grounded in an unreasonable fear that legalization will increase use (c.f. Portugal’s legalization of drugs), and a belief that drug sales fuel our enemies (even if this is presumed to be true, our efforts are merely driving their profits). All parties interests are best served by a cessation in wasting resources on this, and the potential gains from taxation.