January 23, 2022

The Failed Crusade Against The Opium Trade

A hundred and ten years ago today the International Opium Convention was signed to curtail the opium trade.

The United States led the efforts on a global level, but the real inspiration for the treaty was a man named Charles Henry Brent, a bishop of the Episcopal Church. 

While serving as Missionary Bishop to the Philippines he saw firsthand the evil effects of opium and used his voice to outlaw it globally.

An excerpt from Wikipedia:

William Howard Taft arrived in the Philippines as the American Governor on the same ship with Brent. One problem Taft faced was what to do about the "opium problem." Governor Taft supported continuing the policy of the Spaniards that included issuing "narcotics addicts" licenses and "legally supplying" them with opium. However, this policy was opposed "on moral grounds" by two American clergy, one of whom was Brent. Their position prevailed, so the United States Congress ordered an end to all "legal sales" of opium by 1908. Brent's opposition made him "a world figure in the fight against opium traffic."

In Brent's view, opium was "the greatest evil in Filipino society," so he went all out to stop its use. He served on a three-man commission "to investigate the use of and traffic in opium and the laws regarding such use and traffic in Japan, Formosa, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Saigon, Singapore, Burma, Java, and the Philippine Islands." The commission had its first meeting on August 13, 1903. After months of gathering information and deliberation, the commission presented its recommendations on March 15, 1904. In summary, recommendation was "for opium to become a government monopoly immediately, this to become prohibition, except for medical purposes, after three years." The commission's recommendation was made law by the United States Congress.

The opium trade in the 21st century is the biggest it has ever been. And Afghanistan accounts for eighty-five percent of opium production worldwide (source). 

An excerpt from, "Pipe dreams: The Taliban and drugs from the 1990s into its new regime" by Vanda Felbab-Brown, Small Wars Journal, September 15, 2021:
After toppling the Ashraf Ghani government in August of this year, the Taliban has announced its intention to rid Afghanistan of drugs. Taliban interlocutors stated that same objective in conversations with me in winter 2019. Yet implementing and maintaining any kind of poppy ban will be wickedly difficult for the Taliban. Even if à la the 1990s, the Taliban seeks to use poppy suppression to obtain international legitimacy (such as with Russia and Iran) and recognition, any lasting suppression would face the same structural and political obstacles that poppy bans and eradication faced in Afghanistan since the mid-1990s. The Taliban regime could ram through temporary poppy bans, but it will struggle to maintain the bans even more than it had to three decades ago. In fact, any effort to maintain them could critically internally destabilize the Taliban. But unlike in the 1990s, it is a new drug world out there—replete with synthetic opioids.

If the farmers of Afghanistan had chosen to grow a different crop and made less money they could have saved their country from its current fate. But they got greedy and they didn't care about the societal effects of growing opium.

Drugs feed government corruption like nothing else. Wherever there is an economic ecosystem of drugs in a region failed states and insurgencies crop up.

Any long-term success in Afghanistan is dependent on destroying the opium trade come hell or high water, damn the consequences. 

But that's easier said than done because the heart of the problem is that the Afghan economy is the drug economy. A whole host of parasites feed off of it, starting at the very top. 

Banning opium production would be political suicide for the Taliban. But, by continuing to grow the evil crop, Afghanistan is committing national suicide. 

The Taliban have tasked themselves as the moral and spiritual guardians of Afghanistan but they have proven to value power more than their own Islamic ideals so they will continue to make compromises with opium farmers. They will busy themselves with chopping off mannequin heads but they won't dare address the real evils in their country.