Poppies for Medicine: An interview with The Senlis Council's Norine MacDonald

Instead of forcibly burning poppy fields in southern Afghanistan, the international community could be assisting Afghan farmers with a program to produce much-needed painkillers instead of illegal (and deadly) heroin. Similar programs have worked in India and Turkey, as Norine MacDonald explains in conversation with Metta Spencer.

By Metta Spencer (interviewer) | 2008-07-01 12:00:00

SPENCER: Were you already living in Afghanistan when you conceived this idea?

MACDONALD: No, I started The Senlis Council six years ago. Then I went to Afghanistan three years ago to do the feasibility study on "Poppy for Medicine." The Senlis Council was started to look at drug policies and we were working mostly on European issues from an office in Paris.

About three-and-a-half years ago, Afghanistan became the top producer of opium for heroin. We were looking at the situation there and had the idea that perhaps the farmers could grow the opium poppies for morphine rather than heroin.

So I went there just to do a feasibility study, which we thought would just take us a couple of months. However, we have continued work on that project over these last three years but also started looking at security issues, the return of the Taliban, which started happening when I was in Afghanistan; and the relationships between counter-narcotics policy, insurgency issues, and development issues.

So The Senlis Council as an organization went from just looking at counter-narcotic issues to a wider spectrum of issues. In the last year we started to look at public security issues in Brazil. I've just finished the a report on security issues in Somalia. So we've expanded our portfolio.

MS: Goodness. All I knew was that you were into the question of morphine from Afghanistan poppies.

NM: It's one of our more high-profile projects, but we do a lot of other work -- for example with the Red Cross/Red Crescent on the humanitarian treatment of drug addiction.

MS: Let's concentrate on the "Poppy for Medicine" project.

NM: Okay. There is a global shortage of what are technically called "essential painkillers" -- morphine and codeine. I'll just talk about morphine here. All the richest countries, including Canada, have a sufficient supply, but in most developing countries there is none or if you can get it, it is extremely expensive. That includes Afghanistan itself, where if you can find morphine in a pharmacy it costs the earth to buy a day's worth of medicine. So what we want to do next is a pilot project to test the idea that Afghan farmers can grow the opium poppy under a village licence system and convert it at the local level to morphine for use in meeting the shortage in developing countries.

MS: It sounds like a plan from heaven.

NM: We think so! We're not saying this should happen 100 per cent across the country in the next season. We want to run pilot projects over the next three years so we can test the various protocols and proposals that we have developed for control, quality control, and distribution. The first step is to prove whether those protocols can deal with the various issues that would be involved.

MS: John Polanyi, our local Nobel laureate, published an article in the Globe and Mail about this idea a couple of years ago. When I read it, I thought "Oh, this is so brilliant, why aren't they doing this already?" What are the arguments of people who oppose the very notion?

NM: Well, the main opposition actually comes from the United States administration. The counter-narcotics policy in Afghanistan is not an Afghan creation. The United States is the leader for counter-narcotics policy and it's primarily administered by the UK. It's financed by the US and the UK. So they've taken classic US "War on Drugs" policies, which you see mostly in Latin America (Colombia for example) and have brought those into Afghanistan.

Those policies are primarily based on forced poppy crop eradication -- ploughing up the poppy fields. And their basis for that, to give it the best argument, is that they believe in pursuing a zero tolerance policy and that, by allowing pilot projects for Poppy for Medicine, you are "sending a mixed message." The difficulty of course is that we have seen in the last five years that this American-led counter-narcotics policy has not only been unsuccessful, in that cultivation is up year after year in southern Afghanistan, but that the policy of ploughing up the Afghan poppy farmers' crop before harvest leaves these farmers, who are extremely poor, without any means to feed their families. It turns them against the international community. So the counter-narcotics policy is extremely inflammatory.

In an environment where the American military are fighting, you want them to have a lot of local support. So it's not only ineffective from a counter-narcotics policy point of view but it also undermines the counter-insurgency effort.

We confront an immovable policy box in Washington. So we're trying to meet all their concerns about Poppy for Medicine in our protocols, and continue to develop responses that can be worked out in the pilot project.

MS: One argument that seems to come up early in the conversation is the notion that, look, even if you were buying the poppy from the farmers, there's nothing that keeps the drug people from getting some of it. So you can't really stamp out the drug trade just by buying the farmers' crops at a modest price.

NM: The way that we've responded to that is with the idea of the village-based licence. Just as in rural areas in North America, everyone knows how much land their neighbor has. And everyone knows how many kilograms of opium that land will produce. So the licences wouldn't be given to individuals. If you and I were living side by side as farmers, we don't each get a licence but the entire village gets a licence. If anybody sells his opium to a trafficker, then the entire village is going to lose their licence. So by setting it up that way, you have this sort of community co-policing, to make sure that the opium that's being produced is being delivered to the factory to be converted to morphine.

As I said, in our proposals for the pilot projects we try to respond to these legitimate concerns. We've based a lot of our work on the experience in two other countries that actually do have licenced opium, Turkey and India.

The former counter-narcotics officer for India's licenced opium production has helped us base those protocols on the lessons they've learned in India.

MS: I presume that the Turks and the Indians are also producing it for morphine.

NM: Yes. In the 1960s America was flooded with heroin from Turkey and India. The practice of heroin use had been brought back to the United states by the Vietnam vets. At first, the Americans responded as they have in Afghanistan, with forced poppy crop eradication in Turkey. And, just as in Afghanistan, it led to a lot of rural political instability. And then they hit upon this idea to finance the conversion of that production in Turkey and India to medicinal production, which the United States financed, and helped them build the necessary factories. And then the United States signed a preferential trade agreement with Turkey and India, committing to buy 80% of their production. And that continues to this day. So we already have a model of something that was done back in the 1960s that was successful.

MS: I saw a TV show the other night about heroin production in Afghanistan. They were making it into a more refined product, which looked like brown bricks.

NM: That would be opium gum. Have you ever seen an opium poppy bulb when the flower is fading? It looks like a green-skinned onion. And to get the opium they take a little metal device, scrape up the side of the bulb, and let it sit overnight. The brown opium gum oozes out. And then they take a little paddle and scrape it off, so what they have is big wads of brown gum. They can turn it into these bricks, which are easier to stack, or they can pack it in a plastic bag and bury it, and it doesn't deteriorate. They can keep in a warehouse for a long period of time. It dries out, but it doesn't lose its chemical potency.

MS: You say it's also possible to go ahead and process it to the stage of white powder, locally?

NM: Yes, they do it now in small heroin factories throughout Afghanistan. That's a relatively new development. It's difficult to be sure, but by the reports we've had, most of it seems to leave Afghanistan across the border to Pakistan and Iran in the form of that brown, raw opium gum.

MS: Okay, but this white powder stuff, this is heroin, right? And it's dissolved in a liquid and injected when the user gets it? What would turn it into morphine instead of heroin?

NM: If you want to make it into morphine, that's a slightly different chemical process, but it's fairly straightforward. You could do in a small laboratory in a village area.

MS: How is morphine different from heroin?

NM: Well, heroin is a psychoactive substance that alters your consciousness and morphine's a painkiller. Obviously some people become addicted to morphine, but they're not addicted to the psychedelic high of it. It's more the sense of well-being, the pain-killing effect of morphine. For example, if you go down to your local hospital, they're normally using morphine for people who are post-op, who have cancer, any type of extreme pain. It is regulated, and they don't feel high.

MS: Well, that's interesting. You said the US is dead set against your proposal.

NM: Yes. The European Parliament has supported it in a resolution, and the Canadian Manley Commission on Afghanistan endorsed the idea of pilot projects. But this American administration has opposed it.

MS: If Manley says yes {to a pilot project}, and the US says no, does that stop Canadians from accepting and supporting it?

NM: We don't think so. We actually did a survey in Canada, the United States, the UK and Holland asking people, "what do you think about Poppy for Medicine, and do you think the prime minister should support it?" and there was overwhelming support by citizens in those various countries for this idea. They don't like the idea of forced poppy crop eradication.

Almost every single year, the Americans have also wanted to move on to aerial chemical spraying, which is what they do in Colombia. They want to spray some sort of high-powered Roundup herbicide from airplanes onto the agricultural lands of southern Afghanistan to eradicate poppies. We've opposed that. In Colombia it has not been an effective counter-narcotics policy, and there are environmental concerns -- even health concerns. And it would add yet another inflammatory element to the relationship with the local population that we're supposedly trying to be friendly with.

MS: Surely humanitarian considerations, both for the poppy farmers and for the people in pain around the world would indicate that your solution should take priority. I would think.

NM: We agree with you! We just have to convince President Bush.

MS: Well, I don't see enough publicity for the idea. It's a rare thing to come across an article even mentioning it. I hope Peace Magazine can give it a boost.

Now tell me about your own experiences in Afghanistan. You're a Canadian from Saskatchewan, and you joined Senlis before you went to Afghanistan?

NM: I founded Senlis. I was born in Saskatchewan, went to university in Vancouver, practiced law there, and then ended up doing international policy work. As part of that I founded The Senlis Council about five years ago.

Three years ago, we started the Afghanistan project. I'm the president of the organization, but I also made myself the lead field researcher and so I spend most of my time in southern Afghanistan.

MS: You're not behind a desk, then?

NM: No, I've done enough years at a desk! And it's very interesting to do the field work. The organization has small offices in a lot of different places, so we're all working together but we're not in the same physical location a lot.

MS: In Afghanistan, do you live in a city or out in the country?

NM: We have a house in Kabul, and one in Kandahar city, and one in Lashkar Gah, which is in Helmand province. All the houses there are walled compounds, which is a normal Afghan house setup. The residence and the office are together in the same compound, and Senlis Afghanistan is mainly an Afghan organization; there are 50 staff and there are normally only a couple of non-Afghans there at any given time.

Senlis Afghanistan has a film division, a photo division, a research division. My Afghan colleagues are primarily responsible for those parts of our work. In our reports and on our website you will see photos and video that have been done by my Afghan colleagues.

MS: Besides the morphine project, what kind of work are you doing there?

NM: We do research into security issues, which in Afghanistan are substantial. We've mapped the return of the Taliban, what the Taliban control is. Last year we did a survey of 17,000 Afghan men on what they thought was behind the resurgence of the Taliban. We've done some reports on the state of the hospitals in southern Afghanistan. So the portfolio is counter-narcotics policy but also security and development issues.

MS: Do you interact with Manley or with the Canadian Forces -- the people who are directing the Canadians on the ground there?

NM: No, because they're living on a military base and I'm living as a civilian in the city. I talk to the guys if there's a roadblock or something. In Ottawa, we've started a small office that's run by an Afghan who is also a Canadian, who goes back and forth to Afghanistan. And I've testified in front of various Senate and Commons committees about Afghanistan, on security, counter-narcotics and development issues. We testified to the Manley Commission and we did a report about the civilian hospital in Kandahar city. It's inadequate and needs renovation.

MS: If you were in charge of Canadian policy vis-a-vis Afghanistan, what would be the thrust of your proposal?

NM: Well, we'd congratulate the Canadian government on the presence of our military in southern Afghanistan, in Kandahar, and the good work they have done. However, our silence and our allowing the Americans to prosecute an inflammatory and ineffective counter-narcotics policy is a serious issue. And the prime minister should take a position against this forced poppy crop eradication and for Poppy for Medicine. We have serious concerns about the lack of development and aid in southern Afghanistan so we've called for a renovation of the way that aid and development are delivered there. The military that's on the ground is getting an A+ but on counter-narcotics and aid, the government is getting failing grades.

MS: Wow. Now you know of course that in the peace movement in particular there is a very big controversy about what, if anything, we should be doing in Afghanistan.

At least half of the left-liberal people I know would just as soon remove the troops right away, whereas others argue - and here I'm referring to the position of Ernie Regehr at Project Ploughshares and also to a group at McMaster University who are supporting Sadiq Weera, an Afghan-Canadian in Afghanistan.

Weera basically argues that the Canadian troops could be functioning as a police force instead of as a war-fighting force. Instead of chasing Taliban and warlords back to their lairs and trying to kill them, they say we should just try to keep them out of certain protected areas and invest a whole lot more in development and political reconciliation projects. So that's a point of view that a significant number of Canadian peace activists hold. Can you give your reflections on that?

NM: Yes, it's an important conversation and I don't think the government has given Canadians sufficient information about the options to allow Canadians to work through this and build any consensus about how to uphold Canadian peacekeeping, peace-loving values in that environment. And I can surely understand that those people are very concerned about the number of our civilian casualties, the seeming lack of success in keeping the Taliban back. I agree completely about the lack of development aid being a very major issue that the government has neglected.

However, living there and talking to people about what it was like for them before, when they lived under the Taliban, I'm one of those who believe that a military effort is unfortunately necessary. We can't guess what the Taliban are going to do in southern Afghanistan. You can just focus on the lives that women led under the Taliban to see the necessity for us to continue on there and try to eliminate them.

I think the people who are concerned about us staying are coming from the right place. I just don't know what happens to the Afghan people in their scenario -- and particularly to Afghan women. When we went there we told them "We've come to get rid of the Taliban, to bring you peace and prosperity, to stand with you against this threat."

MS: And do they actually want the Canadians and the other military to stay there, unlike the situation in Iraq, where the Iraqis want them to go?

NM: Yeah. They have a lot of complaints about our military presence there -- in particular the bombing campaigns, which are the result of insufficient troops on the ground. And they have a lot of complaints about development and aid, and a lot of complaints about forced poppy crop eradication, So you can certainly find Afghans who are not very happy with the way that our presence has played out for them. But I don't think that means we should leave and let the Taliban go back; I think it means we should renovate the way we are present on the ground. So it should be development and aid, as you've said. There should be a renovated counter-narcotics policy, as we've proposed. And there should be sufficient troops from NATO, to mean that we don't have to bomb villages if we're in a tough fight with the Taliban.

But when you ask them what they want, they want exactly the same types of things that we want. They want peace, they want stability, they want to be able to feed their families and send their kids to school. So my concern about the "we should leave" argument is: What happens next? We've seen situations in other parts of the world, like Rwanda, or Srebrenica, where people had been loth to be involved in a military action, and they've left, and then what happened? I don't think anyone wants a repeat of Rwanda or Srebrenica in southern Afghanistan. And that would be my concern, although I identify with the impulses of those who want the military out of there.

MS: Let me just refer to what I understand Sadiq Weera did. By now it's been a couple of years, if not more. But he went out to places where he took a chance of being killed. He went to the warlords, he went to the Taliban. He went around talking to people who were actually fighting against the government and against each other. And he said "If we called another peace conference -- because you were left out in the outcome of the final peace conference -- would you come? Would you be prepared to have a new dialogue about peace?"

They not only said yes, they'd certainly come, but they even met him with lists of topics that they wanted to bring up in such a discussion. So what he's saying [at least he was then and I suppose he does now] is that it's perfectly possible to start a new peace process and reach an accommodation that would not simply be a winner-take-all kind of thing as with, say, the Northern Alliance outcome of the last negotiations. It would be a more inclusive and pluralistic solution. So it's more than just development aid, it's also the possibility of starting a genuine peacebuilding process.

NM: Unfortunately with peace processes, people seem to think there ought to be a guarantee that it will end up in peace before they're willing to commit to go through the process. And I think that's wrong. I think that there should be these attempts, there should be all these local jirgas, and we've talked about that a lot in our own reports. And people have to be willing to take the risks, to go into the conversation without knowing whether they can in fact negotiate a peace.

So some people seem to say, "We'll never make peace with the Taliban." Well, how do you know until you try to deconstruct them and discover what their interests are? So I think it's important to support such things.

Norine MacDonald is founder and lead researcher of the Senlis Council <www.senliscouncil.net>.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2008

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2008, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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