Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Missing the Forest for the Leaf

Generally speaking, the poorly named "War on Drugs" has been an ongoing disaster of enormous proportions: costing hundreds of billions of dollars, ruining millions of lives, diverting valuable and finite resources and skewing social priorities related to criminal justice and education - all for little to nothing to show for the effort in terms of lessening drug use. Dale Franks' views are largely representative of mine on this point.

Nowhere is the War on Drugs more illogical, counterproductive and utterly pointless than in connection with the criminalization of marijuana - a drug with minimal health risks that has, nevertheless, received an undue level of attention from the criminal justice system. In a regrettable twist, the wrongheaded approach to marijuana could end up having a negative impact on another poorly named and poorly conceived "War." Passport's Joshua Keating passes along this bit of myopic prioritizing:

A major victory has been scored in war against opium cultivation in Afghanistan. In the Northern Province of Balkh, once home to 27,000 acres of poppies, opium cultivation has been nearly eradicated. Balkh's achievement can be attributed largely to stepped up enforcement, prosecution of poppy farmers, and the increasing prevalence of an alternative crop. And that crop is... marijuana.

As The New York Times reported Sunday, many farmers in Balkh are switching to cannabis, which has been cultivated in the region for over 70 years. Other than poppies, farmers say that cannabis is the only crop they can grow that will feed their families. Farmers can earn almost twice as much for the stuff as they do for an equal amount of legal crops like cotton. Balkh's tough-on-drugs governor, Atta Mohammed Noor, has held back so far, but he has no plans to allow the cultivation to continue:

Mr. Atta says he has a plan to eradicate cannabis next growing season. Farmers have begun to harvest their current crop, and officials say they do not want to destroy the farmers' livelihood without giving them time to plant an alternative.

"Marijuana is not difficult to control, like poppy," the governor said in an interview in October in his vast, opulent office in Mazar-i-Sharif. "It's very easy to eradicate. It's a very simple issue."

Perhaps, but that doesn't answer the question of why he would bother. Is it really worth spending Afghanistan's meager financial resources (and the United States' for that matter) trying to eradicate a profitable and non-harmful alternative to one of the country's greatest social ills? Atta says the province is still waiting for development money to help farmers grow alternative crops. That would be a good step of course, but in the meantime can we really justify punishing farmers for finding their own alternatives?

Our misplaced fixation on poppy eradication in Afghanistan has undermined the Karzai government, alienated many farmers, unnecessarily pushed locals into the arms of extremists and other opponents of the Afghan government and created a wave of anti-American backlash. Oh, and it hasn't worked (as Brian Ulrich and Matt Yglesias, amongst many others, have pointed out frequently).

So when an economically viable, less pernicious alternative to opium, such as cannabis cultivation, emerges, one would assume that rational policymakers would welcome the shift as a way of taking pressure of Karzai, winning back some hearts and scythes, and improving our image in the region generally speaking.

Of course, the key word in that sentence is "rational." Unfortunately, our policymakers are suffering from an acute case of reefer madness.

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