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Last Updated: Friday, 19 November 2004, 17:13 GMT
The solution to Afghanistan's opium?
By Marc Deeley
Development worker, Spirit Aid

Earlier this year the head of the United Nations drugs control agency said efforts to tackle Afghanistan's growing drugs trade were failing. The UK-based development agency Spirit Aid offers a radical solution to the problem.

Afghan farmer in a poppy field
Afghanistan produces 75% of the world's opium, says the UN
During the 1990s, five or six provinces in Afghanistan were cultivating opium poppy.

Since the fall of the Taleban, that number has increased to 28 out of 32 regions. That is a major factor in worsening violence this year as people struggle to survive and fight for control of this illegal, socially damaging but lucrative resource.

Afghan farmers produce opium that is sold for some $2.3bn, according to United Nations estimates.

Its value is vastly inflated beyond that by the time it reaches its Western consumers.

Despite this, Afghanistan remains one of the poorest places on Earth.

Collectively the farmers receive less than half a per cent of the wealth generated by their illegal crops. Much of the revenue ends up with local militias.

Environmentally friendly

The organisation I work for, Spirit Aid, has developed a plan to replace Afghan opium - 75% of the global supply - with industrial hemp.

Industrial hemp is perhaps the only economically and environmentally viable alternative to opium cultivation in Afghanistan

Hemp is a fast growing, legal cash crop that presents a host of immediate benefits to Afghan society, including a potentially lucrative source of foreign exchange earnings.

The hemp tree is part of the cannabis species, which includes marijuana plants. However, leaves from hemp trees carry very little of the psychoactive components of the marijuana plant that makes it popular among drug users.

It can be used to produce heating and cooking fuel, thereby ending the need for people to cut down and burn their remaining forests during severe winters.

Using hemp in this way would also help prepare areas of land for future tree planting projects.

But there are other benefits to cultivating hemp.

Renewable energy

At the moment many Afghan children are malnourished. Hemp produces a fruit boasting the nutritional qualities of soya, oily fish and wheat combined.

Hemp trees
Hemp trees - can make the world a healthier place

Hemp can produce quantities of wood equivalent to four times that of trees over a similar period of time. This biomass can be used in the production of clean, renewable energy, biodegradable plastics and building composites.

Hemp is currently being grown for these purposes in 36 countries around the world, including Canada and some European Union countries.

If hemp could be successfully introduced in Afghanistan we believe that:

  • Those who depend on the 90,000 hectares of land dedicated to opium poppies in Afghanistan would instead be able to cultivate industrial hemp to provide heating, shelter, food and would have an alternative source of revenue

  • Communities in the West would no longer be flooded with cheap heroin in this supply-driven industry

  • The world would become a cleaner, healthier and more secure place as the need to cut down old growth forests and burn the remaining oil, coal and gas reserves is reduced.

    Unique opportunity

    Industrial hemp is perhaps the only economically and environmentally viable alternative to opium cultivation in Afghanistan.

    Colombian military
    Is Afghanistan heading the way of Colombia?

    It presents an opportunity to satisfy the immediate fuel, fibre and monetary requirements of two million farming households struggling to survive in one of the most dangerous countries on Earth.

    Hemp cultivation also presents a unique opportunity for environmental improvement in Afghanistan.

    Crucially the international community has a moral obligation to prevent a Colombian-style "war on drugs" from taking hold in Afghanistan because if this happens we can be certain the violence, and supply of opium, will never end.

    Below is a selection of your views on this column.

    One can actually run diesel engines on hemp oil and thereby conserve our dwindling resources We should all be growing hemp
    Rohen Kapur, Uk

    The Taliban had tackled Afghanistan's drugs trade and it was then minimal however with the new regime in Afganistan this country now produces 75% of the worlds supply, perhaps the Taliban got somethings right.
    Tim, Uk

    To Tony, Welling Kent, We already do get excellent hashish and cannabis from Afghanistan, just not much of it unfortunately! What they're proposing is to grow a crop that doesn't get you stoned. They just have to get around the problem of the multinationals, the World Bank and the Oil companies who really don't want developing countries producing viable home-produced alternatives to their oil and wood-derived products. It used to be a criminal offence NOT to grow hemp in both the U.S and the U.K until the advent of the petrochemical industry and the little "war on drugs" it started to ensure that oil became the raw material, not hemp. A really great idea - hope it succeeds.
    Steve, London, uk

    What an excellent idea - however the fear factor shouldn't be discounted. There's an enormous amount of pressure on farmers, from warlords, to grow opium poppies in place of more useful crops. The new Afghan government needs to rein in the warlords for many reasons, not just this one (as a visitor to remote areas in the country, I was horrified at the blatant abuse of power on their part, including a village missing all its young women and teenage girls, kidnapped for the warlord's harem), however a first step might be to convince them of the benefits of hemp over opium. Perhaps they should be reminded that there is a growing heroin use problem in Afghanistan, not just in the countries it exports to, and that heroin use is extremely un-islamic. Then there's the problem of policing the hemp farmers and making sure that they're growing the low THC variety because, contrary to earlier comments, there is plenty of cannabis already in Afghanistan, and we have been getting it here! in the West for decades!
    Jan Trefusis, Uk

    I have been to Afghanistan in 1998 (Jalalabad region and Nuristan) and in 2001 (Panjeer Valley). I think your idea is the right way forward. Many Afghan farmers would stop growing poppies if they were given help to grow alternative plants. The UN and others have so far spent far more money on monitoring the growth of poppies then they have given to the farmers to help them grow alternative plants. Your idea has my fullest support and I wish you success with it. Yours sincerely Wolfgang Knoepfler
    Wolfgang Knoepfler, Austria

    The demand for opium needs to be tackled as well as the greed factor that creates the entrepreneurs on the supply side. Gary
    Gary Sanon-Jules, United States

    I really feel it is a excellent idea to introduce hemp. I wish Afghans all the best if they agree to this proposal. Things will really help them and the world.
    jonito pereira, India

    I totally agree. Hemp is one of the worlds misunderstood plants. Known in the UK for its drug properties, but it has a far wider range of uses. I am myself introducing hemp to an area of far western Nepal. It already grows there, but is cut down and burned to make way for the once a year rice crop. Hemp seed is used in a pickle but is used for little else. The stalks, if left to grow make fantastic fire wood, the leaves are excellent for composting and the seeds make a fantastic and FREE fish food. The Japanese already produce hemp for many different reasons, including rope and material for clothing. It would require just one person to produce hemp, instead of poppies, and when others could see that they were making money then they would follow. But in Afghanistan there is the problem of the warlords who run the country.We would have to get at least one of these on side.
    Stephen Bailey, England

    Great idea, in theory. But isn't the problem defined by the statement that: "Collectively the farmers receive less than half a per cent of the wealth generated by their illegal crops. Much of the revenue ends up with local militias." Wouldn't most local farmers be too scared NOT to grow opium poppies? The militias seem to be more concerned with their own gain than the welfare of the Afgan people. Let's face it, for a 'wage' of 5p out of every 10 they're not growing it for their own financial gain.
    Tim, Devon, Uk

    People just need a chance. They are clearly desperate to make money to support themselves. Hemp appears to offer an ideal solution that if properly supported will have far reaching benifits.
    Sally, England

    I am currently looking at hemp as an industrial crop for the developing world to generate food and power. However there are many restrictions that are imposed by the World Bank to inhibit the use of this crop, including a clause in their loan agreements stating that they must not cultivate hemp as a resource.
    Ian Gardner @ ecotecs.com UK

    What bright spark thought that one up. How long do they think it is going to be before we start getting Cannabis from Afghanistan. We still cannot control the supply of Heroin from their due to the politics of warlordism. The reason that Opium became a cash crop was because global economics made it more economical than wheat or barley for which the multinationals would not pay. They have affected Colombia and parts of Africa this way. It just goes to show that international politicians are hand in hand with the multinationals. People are just in the way of profit, they need to be fed. It also shows that the world is not serious about stopping narcotics, it is just rhetoric and us taxpayers are just footing the bill. Time I think for a revolution.
    Tony, Welling Kent

    This not only makes sense but is 100% true, the side crops that can be produces along side of hemp are strawberries and asparagus all three are in full swing in northern parts of Thailand. What a wonderful idea, clean, profitable and a growing demand that will last well into 2050.
    Samuel Blackstock, Mathis Texas USA, Now living in Bangkok Thailand

    What an excellent idea. Removing an illegal crop, that has negative knock on effects to the rest of the world, and replacing it with a legal alternative with more benfits for the people of Afghanistan and ultimately the world as a whole. Hopefully, if the move goes ahead, it will highlight the long ignored benefits of this amazing plant.
    Chris Kennard, London, Uk

    This information, and theory have been around for a long time but has been prevented from being put into action by the lunatic paranoia surrounding marijuana and it's cultivation. Hemp is a perfect cash crop, not only for Afghanistan, but for many developing and developed countries. It's not only environmentally friendly in the lack of damage done when growing Hemp, but actually (as your report points out) improves the environment. Hemp cultivation should be taken seriously on a worldwide basis.
    Chris Thompson, Nederlands

    US anti-drug campaign 'failing'
    06 Aug 04 |  Americas
    Following the Afghan drugs trail
    04 Jun 04 |  South Asia
    UN warning on Afghanistan opium
    01 Jun 04 |  South Asia
    Legal hemp for Malawi?
    24 Apr 00 |  Africa
    Cannabis boost to rural economy
    15 May 03 |  Humber
    Hemp burgers on sale
    01 Nov 03 |  South East Wales

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