The Senlis Council, a France-based group founded in 2002, released results of a study on Monday examining the potential for licensing poppy cultivation in Afghanistan - which produces an estimated 87% of the world's supply of opium and its derivative, heroin.

The study argues for "licensed opium production in Afghanistan to provide essential medicine", the group's executive director Emmanuel Reinert said in the run-up to the study's release at a symposium in Kabul.

Transforming some illegal poppy fields into legal ones could "address both the drug policy crisis in Afghanistan and the pain crisis in developing countries", which he said need opium-based painkillers to treat patients with cancer, Aids and other diseases.

Booming trade

The Afghanistan representative of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime called the idea a "pipe dream" whose time has not come.

"[Transforming some illegal poppy fields could] address both the drug policy crisis in Afghanistan and the pain crisis in developing countries"

Senlis Council study

Afghanistan's booming drug trade is suspected to be partially funding an insurgency in the country and has sparked warnings that Afghanistan is becoming a "narco-state" less than four years after a US led invasion drove the Taliban from power.

UNODC director Antonio Maria Costa said last month that Afghanistan produced 4519 tonnes of opium this year, down just 2% from 2004. He warned it could take 20 years to eradicate opium despite hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid earmarked for anti-drug campaigns.

Largely ineffective

Reinert said eradication efforts and attempts to get farmers to produce different crops had been largely ineffective.

He said it would not be difficult to pay farmers who would be licensed to receive the equivalent of their net income from illegal cultivation.

Doris Buddenberg, UNODC's country representative, said Afghan farmers would probably reject offers of legal world prices for their crops. She also said lack of potential supply was not the main reason for the low consumption of opium-based medicine in developing countries.

"So I see many very many practical problems, from the producers to the final use of the product," Buddenberg said.

Pipe dream

She said the Afghan government should carefully consider any proposal that could help them resolve the crisis, and discuss it with international drug control bodies.

"However, the UNODC's position is very clear: There is no way out at this point in time in the direction of legal production," she said. "This is a pipe dream."

The security situation makes any
Afghan  plan hard to implement

Afghanistan's Counternarcotics Ministry welcomed the study but has said legal opium poppy cultivation is impossible at this point.

"The poor security situation in the country means there can simply be no guarantee that opium will not be smuggled out of the country for the illicit narcotics trade abroad," Counternarcotics Minister Habibullah Qaderi said in a statement.

"Without an effective control mechanism, a lot of opium will still be refined into heroin for illicit markets in the West and elsewhere. We could not accept this."

The statement said the government must focus on reducing poppy cultivation.