Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine who lived 460-370BC, concluded that diseases were naturally caused and were cured by natural remedies. Opium, he wrote, was one of the latter. But he was also of the opinion that it should be used sparingly and under control.
If only our governments today could take such a sanguine and informed view of the use of opiates in medicine today. No one is in need of an enlightened attitude more than the Western forces now operating in Afghanistan where they are committed to destroying the peasants’ main source of income, the poppy crop.
The tough, no nonsense, eradication programme has done as much as Western military action to push country people into the Taliban camp. A more sensible option would be to buy the poppy crop. That is the opinion of the former president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, as well as the former finance minister Sartaj Aziz, who probably knows more about the economics of agriculture in Pakistan than anyone else (see my interview with Musharraf for Prospect from March 2007).
It would solve two problems in one blow. First, it would help deal with the world-wide shortage of medical opiates which, according to the World Health Organization, are causing a “global pain crisis”, particularly in Africa, where hundreds of thousands of people are dying in agony for lack of pain relief. Second, it would prevent the opium farmers of Afghanistan being driven into the arms of the Taliban.
There are many practical problems with the idea of buying up the crop. If the prices were set too high, it might encourage even more farmers to grow opium poppies. If they were not high enough, farmers would go on selling at least some on the black market. Nevertheless, they would probably rather sell their crop legally than to the mafia.
How would the Muslim world react to buying up the crop? Before the U.S. invasion the Taliban was opposed to the growing of poppies and that effectively prohibited it. But after the invasion they turned 180 degrees and encouraged it, mainly for the purpose of providing revenue to buy military equipment.
Muslim theology over the ages, whilst vigorously anti alcohol (and even, in one period, coffee) has usually considered opium benign ly, if cautiously. It is seen as an antidote to sorrow–in some places iced poppy tea is traditionally served at funerals. I’ve heard Muslims arguing that if the West is so determined to eliminate opium it should ban alcohol.
It was Arab peoples who developed and organised the first systematic production and trade in opium–by the ninth century AD Arab scholars and physicians were publishing books on opium and its preparation. The most serious scholar, an outstanding physician, Avicenna, whose Canon of Medicine was the standard text for five centuries, wrote that opium was of particular value in helping cure dysentery, diarrhoea and eye diseases. (Interestingly, today cocaine can be used as an anaesthetic in eye and nasal surgery.)
For the most part it was Islamic practice only to use opium for medical not recreational purposes. When it spread westwards to Europe in the Middle Ages, it became a recreational drug, producing many addicts, especially among the upper classes.
Today, the only countries where poppy growing is legal are India, Australia, Turkey, France and Spain. In India poppy growing is licensed to about 100,000 farmers. The processing is carried out at the Government Opium and Alkaloid works in Ghazipur, before it is exported to international pharmaceutical companies for the extraction of morphine or codeine.
This goes to show that with careful monitoring it should be possible to make legalising Afghanistan’s poppy crop a success and make a major contribution to the great shortage of pain killers, especially in poorer countries.
Legalisation would also save a good many lives from military action in Afghanistan and is far more likely to win “hearts and minds”. Maybe, as Martin Booth has written in his seminal book Opium, “it is God’s own medicine”.