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Reuters, Sept. 25, 2005
by David Brunnstrom
KABUL, Sept 25 (Reuters) - Afghanistan, the world's biggest producer of illicit opium and heroin, is not ready to adopt a controversial proposal to use its opium to help ease a global shortage of painkillers, its counter-narcotics minister says.
The Senlis Council, a Paris-based non-governmental organisation, has suggested licensed Afghan opium production could be used to produce morphine and codeine and is to a launch a feasibility study on the proposal in Kabul on Monday.
Speaking to Reuters on Sunday, Counter-Narcotics Minister Habibullah Qaderi said he was happy for Senlis to do studies, but it was too early to consider such a proposal when Afghanistan was still struggling to cut massive illegal production.
"As far as the licensing at this moment is concerned, I am saying no," he said. "I'm not in favour because it jeopardises the whole of our effort ... There would be anarchy in this country now. It would create a lot of problems."
Qaderi said internationally backed efforts to control drug production had led to a 21 percent reduction in the area under opium cultivation, but there was still a long way to go.
The area sown with opium poppies was 103,000 hectares (255,000 acres) this year compared with 131,000 hectares (325,000 acres) last year.
Afghanistan is the world's main source of opium and its refined form, heroin, producing 87 percent of global supply.
Qaderi questioned the timing of the Senlis report.
"We don't want to confuse the Afghan people, because the Afghan people would be confused, because while the government on the one hand wants to control and stop cultivation, we are talking about licensing.
"I think it's too early to talk about licensing."
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has also rejected the Senlis Council proposal, saying it risked creating confusion among farmers and raising false expectations.
Senlis has estimated the worldwide shortage of morphine and codeine at about 10,000 tonnes of opium equivalent a year, while Afghanistan produces roughly 4,000 tonnes of opium a year.
However, the UNODC, while conceding there is a shortage of narcotics for medical purposes, says lawful production of opiates worldwide had considerably exceeded global consumption in the past years and could be increased should demand increase.
The U.N. body argues that licit production of opium would send the wrong message to farmers in Afghanistan, would be impossible to control, and would not offer a viable economic alternative.
The United Nations has warned that the country risks becoming a "narco-state" and the multi-billion dollar drugs economy is seen as the biggest threat to its long-term stability and U.S.-led nation-building efforts.
The UNODC says the opium cultivation area fell this year largely due to government efforts to persuade farmers to stop, including a threat to destroy fields, and low prices.
However, it says good weather boosted productivity of fields still planted with opium and total output of about 4,100 tonnes is down only 2.4 percent over last year.
Qaderi said Afghanistan needed to concentrate on improving rural infrastructure to provide farmers with alternative livelihoods and said a lot would depend on a continuation of international assistance to the anti-narcotics effort.
With the new planting season about to start, the minister said he was hopeful for a further fall in the area under cultivation after religious leaders in the key growing province of Kandahar vowed to support the government's campaign.
"I am hopeful we will have a further reduction," he said. "It can be the same percentage, hopefully, maybe more."