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Afghan farmers say no to opium, yes to pot

PAULA BRONSTEIN/AFP/Getty Images

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?

Balkh's farmers aren't the only ones thinking differently about Afghanistan's poppy problem. Last week the European Parliament endorsed a proposal to license a limited number of Afghan farmers to grow poppies for use in medicines, such as morphine. Similar schemes have worked in the past in Pakistan and Thailand. The idea is not without its problems. It would be hard to justify allowing one village to grow poppies while eradicating them in another. And even under the most optimistic projections, farmers would still earn far less legally then they would by selling to drug traffickers. Still, it's promising that some leaders are looking for creative new ways to, as Ethan Nadelman suggests, limit the harm caused by illegal drugs rather than perpetuating an endless war to eradicate them.

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