Thursday, January 17, 2008

Opium poppies cropping up across Iraq

Well! Here is some good news for the "free markets solve everything!" crowd!

Iraqi farmers, desperate to make ends meet while simultaneously facing escalating fuel and fertilizer costs, as well as cheap imported fruits and vegetables, have taken to growing opium poppies. Poppy cultivation is spreading rapidly all across Iraq, but is especially prevalent in Diyala province, where local police and security forces are so preoccupied with the ethnic conflicts among the residents of the region, as well as a tenacious insurgency that brings the war and it's associated chaos home - suffice it to say that the drug trade is low on their list of priorities.

Put one more hashmark in the "Law of Unintended Consequences" column, I guess.

The shift to opium cultivation by Iraqis is a very recent development. The first fields, underwritten by Afghani smugglers who supplied the lucrative markets in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, were discovered less than a year ago near Diwaniya in the south, but the practice has now spread to the lush orchards of Diyala, north of Baghdad. A local agricultural engineer identified as M S al-Azawi said that the local farmers received no government support, and turned to opium production as an effort to offset high production costs and low sale prices.

[Keep reading]

Once harvested, the opium is taken to Ramadi in the west for exporting and processing - unlike Afghanistan, Iraq does not seem to have heroin laboratories established, so the raw materials must be moved out of the country for processing. Iraq has never been a major drugs consumer, but it has been an important part of the supply line. Heroin from Afghanistan crosses Iran, enters Iraq and finds it's way to Basra, which serves as the distribution hub for the lucrative playground states of the Gulf. Under Hussein, it is widely assumed that state security officers controlled the smuggling.

The proliferation of the crop across the country will be nearly impossible to stop, with so much of the country controlled by militias and criminal gangs. Much of the so-called "success" the Bush administration keeps desperately pointing to is due to a 70,000-member Sunni Arab militia - comprised of a large number of former insurgents with links to protection rackets and organized crime - that has been encouraged, armed and financed by the tax dollars of Americans.

Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the powerful Shia militia Jaish al Mahdi, or the Mahdi Army, claims that such criminal elements have infiltrated its ranks.

Local warlords, both Sunni and Shia, taking up opium cultivation is a menacing development in a country where local political leaders are frequently allied with gangsters.

Of course, there is one workable, win-win strategy that would provide a market to the farmers, cut the drug gangs (who are the only ones getting rich) out of the profit loop, and solve a medical need for the west while keeping dangerous drugs off the streets of western cities - but the current administration will never even consider the idea. But I'm going to tell you anyway...

Encourage the cultivation of Papaver somniferum by Iraqi farmers, and buy the crop for use in pharmaceuticals. It is, after all the base ingredient in all opiate pain killers such as morphine. The farmers would have a legitimate market, and pharmaceutical companies would have access to raw materials that are currently in short supply.

It makes perfect sense except for one little thing....we aren't just at war with Iraq - we're at war with drugs, too.

Apparently, we can safely add common sense to that list as well.