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Afghan Governor Wants Government To Control Poppy Crop


This week, we're taking a look at the ongoing war in Afghanistan, where 15 years later, there are still 10,000 American troops on the ground. Today, we hear about Afghanistan's poppy production, which accounts for more than 90 percent of the world's heroin. The profits of this go to the Taliban to pay fighters, to buy weapons and also to pay off government officials.

Now the new governor of the top poppy growing area has an idea. Have the Afghan government control the poppy harvest by licensing farmers and processing the poppies for medical morphine to be used in hospitals. Governor Hayatullah Hayat of Helmand province told NPR this plan could relieve a worldwide need for morphine.

HAYATULLAH HAYAT: I know this will take very long time with the security situation that we have in this country. But I think that is an option which can be worked, at least in the areas where we have security.

GREENE: Our colleague Tom Bowman was recently in Afghanistan. And that's where he spoke with the governor about this idea. Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, David.

GREENE: So is this idea brand new?

BOWMAN: You know, it's not. It's been around for nearly a decade, but there's been no movement. Advocates say having the government take over production would serve two purposes. Bring in more money for Afghanistan, where the economy right now is based on foreign handouts and opium, and also take that money away from the Taliban.

Right now, medical morphine for hospitals in the developed world comes mostly from Turkey, India and Australia. So experts, even some lawmakers, said this might be a good idea for Afghanistan. Now here's Senator Dianne Feinstein of California back in 2009. She chaired the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control.


DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Actually, the manufacturing of some poppy for morphine in a very controlled way seems to me - would make some sense. It would have to be a strictly government-regulated industry.

BOWMAN: But there has been opposition from the State Department, though. A State Department official said the department still supports destroying the entire poppy crop, even though that hasn't happened in years. The department also cautions that some portion of any legal poppy crop might be diverted to the illegal market.

And of course, right now, 100 percent of that crop's in the hands of the Taliban and drug traffickers. And the department also said there's enough morphine being produced elsewhere. There's really no demand.

GREENE: No - I mean, there's no demand for medical morphine around the world?

BOWMAN: Well, there's no shortage in the U.S. or Europe. But there are shortages elsewhere - Africa, China and also Afghanistan itself. I spoke with Jorrit Kamminga. He's an international counternarcotics expert in Holland. And this is what he had to say.

JORRIT KAMMINGA: Countries like Afghanistan - they fail to address moderate and severe pains because of the fact that they don't have any morphine, which is still the gold standard of painkilling medicines.

GREENE: OK. So debate here, Tom, about how much demand there would be for medical morphine, which would be key to a new program like this. Let's just take the State Department's argument that there's not enough demand. What about just eradicating the poppies in Afghanistan?

BOWMAN: Well, they've tried that over the years. The U.S. has spent billions of dollars eradicating the poppy. Also, the Afghan government has been involved in this effort to get rid of the poppy crop. But it's in fits and starts. Now, this year, we were just in Helmand Province. The entire poppy crop was grown and is now being processed into opium and heroin. They didn't touch the poppy crop this year.

GREENE: Might tell you why the governor is so determined to do something right now. So, I mean, could this be the moment of momentum where he gets an idea like this - gets it through?

BOWMAN: Well, it could be. Again, there's resistance in the U.S. to doing this. But he would like to at least have a pilot project. He also wants to do things like grow watermelons, wheat, cotton. The problem with cotton is - there's a law in the U.S. that - you can't support overseas programs that compete with American cotton farmers.

GREENE: Tom, thanks a lot.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.