Could biofuels help win the “war on drugs”?

Could biofuels help win the “war on drugs”? The question popped into my mind after reading about the sight of poppies which greeted a British Soldier in Afghanistan. The original story, by Misha Glenny, a former BBC journalist, appeared in the Washington Post: Hattip to the Crimes and Corruptions of the New World Order News blog. That’s where you’ll have to go if you want to read it. (The article is hidden behind a subscription wall on the Post)
From Glenny’s article:

Poppies were the first thing that British army Capt. Leo Docherty noticed when he arrived in Afghanistan’s turbulent Helmand province in April 2006. “They were growing right outside the gate of our Forward Operating Base,” he told me. Within two weeks of his deployment to the remote town of Sangin, he realized that “poppy is the economic mainstay and everyone is involved right up to the higher echelons of the local government.”

One of the big attractions of opium is that poppies will grow on poor soil and it provides a regular income for the farmers or the people in economic control of the farms. There are considerable opportunities for criminals to add value by converting opium to heroin up the chain to the user. There are considerable opportunities for legitimate farmers to add value by converting their crops to biofuel before shipment. If there were a suitable crop, and trade barriers, such as tariffs, were suitably low to the developed world, just as they are for drugs, we might be able to swap at least some of on illegal cash crop for another legal one. Perhaps there’s someone at the UN or US State Department looking at this.

There is another way, of course, in the FT on August 7 Willem Buiter in Legalise drugs to Beat Terrorists proposed that the US and UN buys the whole of the Afghan poppy crop (and by implication all of the coca crop in South America). This would remove the Taliban’s tax base (an make FARC look pretty poor too) he argues. Additonally, it would give the world a large volume of opiates that could be used to reduce the cost of pain killers. He also suggests that the plants might be suitable for using as biofuels. The cost of not doing so could be high.

If poppies could not be profitably turned into biofuel and if opium and heroin remained illegal, the rest of the allies’ poppy stash would have to be destroyed. This would drive up the street price of opium and heroin and create even more massive rents for the remaining suppliers.

He adds:

If opium and heroin were legalised, the allies’ stash could be sold to regulated producers/distributors of opium, heroin and other formerly illegal poppy derivatives. Our chemical and pharmaceutical industries, and indeed our cigarette manufacturers, would be well-positioned to enter this trade. The profits made by the allies on the sale of the stash could be turned over to the Afghan government. It surely makes more sense for the government to tax the poppy harvest than for the Taliban to do so.

His words not mine, but historically, drugs were really only regulated in the last century, as a quick perusal of Thomas De Qucincy‘s Confessions of an Engish Opium Eater will confirm. I am not advocating that.

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