A Need for Cohesive Counter-Narcotics Policy

I. Introduction

The illicit opiate market is a flexible one that is capable of avoiding any limitation on its profitability.  This makes it difficult to tailor an effective policy response.  Because of globalized trade and the ability for players within the market to take on more than one role, any counter-narcotics policy geared toward one specific region and/or portion of the illicit opiate market, such as production in Afghanistan, will be ineffective because of the market’s ability to adapt to such counternarcotic policies by shifting positions and avoiding any limitation on its profitability. The key to licit and illicit business is profit.  As long as the illicit opiate market is a profitable one with a higher financial gain, and lower risk than any licit market, the illicit opiate market will continue to consume all participating and non-participating regions.

Afghan OpiumAny reduction wanted within the illicit opiate market must start with a cohesive policy to truly be effective in minimizing its profitability.  The word cohesive plays two roles in the previous statement: cohesive in regards to the implementation of a counter-narcotics policy by those states currently affected, and soon to be affected, by the illicit opiate market; and cohesive in regards to the implementation of a counter-narcotics policy that attempts to impact all levels of the illicit opiate market, from the supplying level, to the demand level, to the financing level in an evenly distributed manner. In other words, for the profitability of this mass network to suffer, any threat to it must be a threat to the entire network, by all those wanting to threaten that network.  And the main goal behind any threat should be to increase the risks, and decrease any gains for those participating in the illicit opiate market enough to limit the financial lucrativeness of that market.

But the key to the illicit opiate market is the flexibility of it.  And so the policies themselves must be just as flexible.  The dedication by member states in solving this problem requires long term commitment.  However, long term policies unable to flexibly adjust with the market are a mistake.  This is because if the policies in place are unable to move just as quick, and be just as flexible as the market, the policy will not have the capability of preventing the market from adapting and maintaining its profitability.

The devastating effects around the world as a result of this resilient market call for a change in our counter-narcotics policies.  Supply reducing policies, such as eradicating poppy plants, have proven to be a failure.[1] Today we need counter-narcotics policies that give the necessary deterrence, incentives, competing licit industries, finances put to the actual infrastructure of the countries involved, and assistance in helping these under-developed agriculturally driven countries to exploit their licit resources, all so that the want/need to conduct themselves illicitly is no longer there.  The goal is to attack the market as a whole, (suppliers, traffickers, and consumers), by those who are currently affected, and those who can potentially be affected, while also making the licit market less of a risk, more financially lucrative, and easier to exploit for those involved.

In this paper I am going to discuss the commodities involved in the illicit opiate market, specifically within the heroin market, and the players involved in the production, manufacture, trade, and/or use/consumption of those commodities.  I am also going to discuss the effects the market has had on today’s society. These effects are devastating, and on a path of epidemic proportions.  This paper will show that the market is flexible, adaptable, and resilient.  However, the current death grip the illicit opiate market has on today’s society can be alleviated when the business is riskier, no longer as profitable, and has competing businesses that no longer make participation in that market the best option.

II. The Flexibility of the Illicit Opiate Market[2]

From a business perspective, the flexibility of the illicit opiate market is quite beautiful.  When one considers the resiliency that is necessary for the illicit opiate market to adapt and overcome obstacles, which have been placed along the way by national and international agencies to eliminate the market, and the market’s continued ability to maintain tremendous profitability, one cannot help but be impressed.  In fact, the illicit opiate market has achieved an impressive feat not achieved by most licit industries with fewer obstacles.

To understand the flexibility of the illicit opiate market, an understanding of the commodities being sold and who is selling them is necessary.  Once an understanding of the commodities that are sold within the market is established, the roles played by those involved in distributing those commodities is easier to understand since, all states play multiple roles within the market because of the commodities involved.  This foundation is necessary before you can really foresee when and what players will shift positions within the market to avoid any limitation on the market’s profitability.  The purpose of this section is to explain the commodities of the illicit opiate market, with specific emphasis on the heroin market, and the countries involved in the production, manufacture, trade, and/or use/consumption of those commodities.

A. What’s for Sale: Commodities within the Illicit Opiate Market

When I first began studying the illicit opiate market, I was completely unaware of the fact that heroin did not come from poppy the way apples come from apple trees.  In fact, all I knew was that there was a poppy plant, and that heroin was “the most widely consumed illicit opiate in the world.”[3] What I found out was that there were opium,[4] opium alkaloids,[5] acetic anhydride,[6] morphine,[7] and heroin,[8] all being traded within the illicit opiate market;[9] this was essential to understanding how the market could consistently adapt to counternarcotic policies, or even environmental issues, and maintain profitability.

The foundation of the market itself is the poppy plant scientifically known as Papaver Somniferum L.[10] Without that poppy plant none of the illicit opiate market commodities can be made or used.  Although there are many varieties of the poppy plant, including thebaine-rich varieties like the “Norman,”[11] Papaver Somniferum L. is the most commonly cultivated poppy plant for the illicit production of opium because of its high levels of morphine.[12]

The poppy plant is able to grow in any ecological habitat; whether or not that habitat is mountainous, flat, cold, hot, irrigated, or not irrigated.[13] This is important because it shows the market’s ability to shift production sites, regardless of the site’s topography, making counternarcotic policies focused on supply reduction in current producing areas less likely to have any long term effect on the market.

And because the plant itself is drought resistant, its ability to survive in environments such as Afghanistan, make it a much more financially safe crop to cultivate than other licit crops that are not as sustainable.[14] The extreme weather, lack of infrastructure, and lack of irrigation in most participating regions, make licit crops, such as wheat, a financial risk to cultivate as compared to poppy crops.  These factors reduce the counter-narcotics policies’ long term effectiveness when attempting to replace the poppy crop with licit crops.

The opium gum[15] produced by the poppy plant is a nonperishable commodity.[16] Therefore, if the market were to overproduce opium, instead of oversaturating the market with this supply, the nonperishable commodity could be stored.  Furthermore, because the illicit opiate market’s supply is constantly being affected by either counternarcotic policies, and/or environmental issues such as drought, the market’s ability to adapt to a loss in supply by accessing the stored supply allows it to continuously feed its demand, also maintaining its profitability.