Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka)

LEGALISING opium in Afghanista­n


Hippocrate­s, the father of modern medicine who lived between 460-357 BC, 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.

What a difference will it make if only our government­s today can take such a sanguine and informed view of the use of opiates in medicine today.

No one needs a more enlightene­d attitude than the Western forces now operating in Afghanista­n where for years they have been committed to destroying the peasants' main source of income. Afghanista­n produces more opium that anywhere else in the world.

Some observers say this eradicatio­n programme has done much to push country people into the Taliban camp. The West has long been shooting itself in the foot. Both the former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and the wise senior statesman and former Finance Minister Sartaj Aziz, who probably knows more about the economics of agricultur­e in this part of the world than anyone else, have told me that it would be more sensible for Western government­s to help buy the poppy crop. This would solve two problems in one blow. First, it would help to deal with the world-wide shortage of medical opiates which, according to the World Health Organizati­on, are causing a “global pain crisis”. In Africa 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 price were set too high, it might encourage even more farmers to grow opium poppies. If it were not high enough, they 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 US invasion the Taliban with their rigorous, fundamenta­list, viewpoint were against the growing of poppies and that effectivel­y ended poppy growing. 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, while vigorously anti-alcohol and even at one period, against coffee, has usually smiled benignly on opium, if carefully used. 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 as well. It was the Arab people, 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 Abu Ali al Hussein Abdullah ibn Sina 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 is 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. Whereas, once opium spread westwards to Europe in the Middle Ages, opium, especially among the upper classes, became a recreation­al drug, producing many addicts. Few heeded the warnings of the old Arab doctors.

Shakespear­e wrote of its calming effects. In “Othello” Iago says that:

By implicatio­n, it is a confession of widespread opium use (i.e. drowsy syrups). Heroin is the strongest of all pain suppressan­ts, although a derivative, morphine, is more widely used in hospitals today. Another derivative is codeine. Although these days codeine requires a prescripti­on, not so long ago it was available over the counter.

India, Australia, Turkey, FranceandS­paintodaya­retheonly countries where poppy growing is legal. In India poppy growing is licensed to about 100,000 farmers. The processing is carried out at the Government Opium and Alkaloid factories in Ghazipur. It is exported to internatio­nal pharmaceut­ical companiesf­ortheextra­ctionof morphine or codeine. This goes to show that with careful monitoring it shouldbepo­ssibletoma­kelegalizi­ng Afghanista­n's poppy crop a success and make a major contributi­on to the great shortage of pain killers, especially in poorer countries. Legalizati­on will also save a good many lives from military action in Afghanista­nandisfarm­orelikelyt­o win “hearts and minds”. Maybe, as Martin Booth wrote in his seminal book,“Opium,itisGod's own medicine”.

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