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U.S. Campaign To Suppress Opium Trade Boosted Taliban Revenue, Says Economist


When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, analysts argued the country was not only a haven for terrorists. It was also on the verge of becoming a narcostate. The drug of concern was opiates, which are derived from the opium poppy plant. The American military tried to stop or at least slow production over the course of the war, either through destroying the crop or encouraging farmers to plant other crops, but it seems that has not worked.

According to the United Nations, Afghanistan accounted for 85% of the global opium production in 2020, and some argue that the U.S.-led effort to attack the poppy plant may actually have benefited the Taliban. One of those arguing that is Jeffrey Miron. He's the director of economic studies at the Cato Institute and the director of undergraduate studies in the department of economics at Harvard University. His focus is on the economics of illegal drugs, so he's been following this issue for years, and he wrote about this in the libertarian magazine Reason. Jeffrey Miron, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

JEFFREY MIRON: Oh, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: What was opium poppy farming in Afghanistan like before the U.S. invasion in 2001? And what did the U.S. do over the course of the 20-year presence there?

MIRON: Well, the opium production, growing of the opium poppy and production of opium and other derivatives from that, such as heroin, certainly existed before the U.S. came in, but it was much less lucrative. It became more lucrative because the U.S. attempts to tamp it down, destroying some crops, forcing it into certain areas as opposed to the more protected areas - it tends to reduce the supply. When you reduce the supply of anything, you tend to drive up its price. And especially for something like opium, where the demand is relatively insensitive to the price, driving the price way up leads to much more revenue for the people who are producing it and selling it, which, after 2001, was the Taliban rather than just individual farmers or sort of small organizations.

MARTIN: Your piece in Reason is titled "Opium Suppression In Afghanistan Was A U.S.-Led Failure." You obviously don't, you know, pull your punches there. What was the logic of the U.S. approach?

MIRON: Well, the logic of the U.S. approach starts from the presumption that it's a good idea for the U.S. and other governments around the world to outlaw various substances like opium or cocaine or marijuana. Once you start from that assumption, then, of course, it's tempting to want to eradicate the supply. I mean, if you want to eliminate the consumption of a particular good, you can try to get people not to want to demand it anymore. That doesn't seem to be very successful. Or you can try to get rid of the supply, as the U.S. has tried to do, both domestically for marijuana, in Latin America for cocaine and in various countries, most recently and especially in Afghanistan, for opium.

But the logic of the economics is that that's very hard to do because you create an increased incentive to want to produce the good once you drive it underground because you tend to make it more lucrative. And we observed that for alcohol during alcohol Prohibition and currently or until relatively recently for marijuana in the U.S. So it's just a very, very difficult goal to achieve.

MARTIN: So what is the relationship that the Taliban have had with opium poppy production? I mean, is it your view that they coerce people into producing this crop or that they just skim off, you know, the profits or that it's just, you know, the farmers don't need to be coerced in because it's just that lucrative?

MIRON: I think it's mainly the last thing you said. There are some examples of coercion or encouragement, but since it's much more lucrative than the alternatives. They don't need much coercion as long as the taxes that the Taliban was imposing were not so large as to make it unprofitable. As long as you don't kill the goose that's laying the golden egg, then the farmers are very happy to grow the opium because it's more profitable than the alternatives.

MARTIN: The U.N. says that countries like Afghanistan could turn to poppy cultivation for a number of reasons - in part, the economic downturn brought on by the global pandemic that, you know, everybody's experienced. But also, as other countries try to isolate the Taliban economically, do you have a concern that, as they try to build a government and infrastructure, that this is something that they would logically turn to?

MIRON: That's absolutely right. I'm less concerned, probably, than most people because I actually don't think that opium should be outlawed. If some countries are growing it and it's being supplied, then that by itself doesn't seem, to me, a huge negative. And another factor is that the poorer we keep Afghanistan, I think the longer it's going to be controlled in an extreme way by the Taliban. Suppressing the opium trade is going to make that worse rather than better.

MARTIN: So before we let you go - you have a particular point of view on this. You've made that clear. You - if I could just establish that - your baseline, you don't believe that any substance ought to be illegal that people voluntarily ingest into themselves. Would that be accurate?

MIRON: Yes. That is exactly accurate. There may be a reasonable role for moderate regulation such as, you know, age limitations and labeling requirements and such. But they should not be made illegal.

MARTIN: But given that that is not the status quo in the United States, although, obviously, we're moving toward deregulation of some substances like marijuana, how do you make the case to the citizens of the United States going forward that this should not be a concern of the United States government?

MIRON: The case is the one that we've been discussing - that by trying to suppress it, we actually increase the profits from it. And so you're making the Taliban richer, which is not what most Americans would think of as the right objective.

MARTIN: That's Jeffrey Miron. He's director of economic studies at the Cato Institute. Professor Miron, thanks so much for talking with us.

MIRON: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.