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Afghanistan urged to fast-track legalisation of opium crop

Associated Press| September 26, 2005

Afghanistan urgently needs to legalise its massive opium crop, which supplies most of the world's heroin, to avoid becoming a narco-state and to fund reconstruction, a think-tank said here.

Group Urges Licensed Opium in Afghanistan

The recommendations were part of a study released by The Senlis Council at a conference in the Kabul to push for the destitute nation to legalise opium production and channel the crop into the manufacture of legal painkillers.

Afghanistan produces about 87 percent of the world's supply of opium.

The council, a Paris-based body of politicians, experts and academics, said the current policy of trying to eradicate the fields of poppies that yield opium, which makes up about half of Afghanistan's income, was a costly failure.

The policy had little impact while demonising Afghan farmers and destroying "a valuable natural resource rather than turning it into a powerful driver for economic development," the study said.

"The illegal heroin trade is the largest and fastest growing business sector in Afghanistan, accounting for a 2.7 billion US dollars' profit a year," it said.

But while it provided jobs for thousands of Afghans, it was only enriching a few while possibly feeding militant and terror networks that could be involved in the drugs industry, it said.

And as the illegal opium exports were untaxed, the public sector was deprived of income that could be used to build much-needed infrastructure.

However a "system of licenced opium production can form the basis for an open-minded and above all realistic debate on how to remove Afghanistan from its immediate development crisis and its imminent descent into a narco-state," it said.

The council recommended the government fast-track the establishment of a national authority to licence opium producers and research an amnesty that would "integrate illegal actors into the opium licencing system".

It said new varieties of poppies could be developed that would prevent the production of heroin but be suitable for the painkillers codeine and morphine.

Poppy blooms in licenced fields could also be colour-coded to distinguish them from illegal crops, assisting policing.

The council's proposals have met with some scepticism, with the Afghan government this year ruling out legalising opium production because of its links to crime and terrorism.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said here Sunday that legalisation would only undermine Afghanistan's battle against drugs.

"The absence of an adequate control system remains the main argument against legalisation of opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan," it said.

"Additionally, the legalisation debate could stir confusion and raise false expectations, which could be particularly detrimental for the development of drug control in Afghanistan at this point in time."

The UN office also pointed out that farmers producing opium legally in other countries earn substantially less they would on the illegal market.

The Senlis Council said further research was needed on financial incentives required to persuade farmers to switch to legal production.

Its other recommendations included the establishment of preferred trade agreements with export countries along the lines of an existing one that requires US pharmaceutical companies to source 80 percent of their raw opium from Turkey and India.

Afghanistan could also develop facilities to begin processing opium into painkillers itself, it said, stressing there was not enough such medicine to meet the global need.

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