The wisdom of opium prohibition falls apart when you consider what happened in Afghanistan

The key to outrunning a bear, as the old joke goes, is not to outrun the bear at all — just outrun the slowest person in your group. Opinion columnists operate under similar principles. The key to being a successful one isn’t to write the best opinions — just write better opinions than the worst ones.

This brings me to last week’s guarantee of job security, an opinion column published in the Las Vegas Review-Journal titled, “Critical race theory falls apart when you consider what happened in Afghanistan.” The thesis Victor Joecks advances while he’s getting mauled by a bear is that, contrary to the supposedly anti-American ideas presented by some proponents of “critical race theory,” the United States military is a force for good, actually, at least when compared to the likes of the Taliban. If it wasn’t, why are there so many Afghan refugees trying to escape to the irredeemably racist United States?

I put “critical race theory” in quotes because, as I’ve explained once before, good luck pinning down what anyone is actually talking about when they bring it up these days. On one side of the fence is a group inspired primarily by the Manhattan Institute’s Christopher Rufo (an individual mentioned favorably as a source in Joecks’ piece) who, and I’m paraphrasing him, seeks to “decodify the term” and “recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.” This might actually have succeeded if those arguing against this version of “critical race theory” actually knew which range of cultural constructions are unpopular with Americans — but because the people responsible for the “recodification” were a bunch of too-online conservatives trying to outdo each other for attention, status, and funding, they recodified “critical race theory” as the set of cultural constructions which oppose the cultural constructions popular among conservatives. And as many of the cultural constructions popular among too-online conservatives are quite unpopular among most Americans, actually (looking particularly at you, Catholic integralists), this has predictably produced a backlash among anti-conservative circles — which, in turn, has led to the recodification of “critical race theory” to be anything that annoys too-online conservatives, such as offering positive comments about the New York Times’ 1619 Project.

On the other side of the fence is a rather complex body of academic legal scholarship written by people who, by and large, have mixed feelings about the likes of Robin DeAngelo (a supposed proponent of “critical race theory,” per Joecks). When I previously wrote that I’m not going to pretend I know what critical race theory is, this is why: I’m not a lawyer, so many of the nuances within legal scholarship would be lost on me. Just as importantly, I also lack the contextual knowledge to be able to identify when a particular scholar is exploring the space — applying the theoretical framework offered by critical race theory against specific subject matter, perhaps even to the point of reductio ad absurdum — and when they’re summarizing mainstream scholarship within their field.

To understand why that context might be important, consider Michelle Goldberg’s opinion piece in the New York Times, The Right-Wingers Who Admire the Taliban, which, if read uncritically, might lead one to believe anyone to the right of Hillary Clinton is cheering the recent successes of the Taliban — members of the Taliban, after all, believe in God and masculinity, and oppose liberalism. Now, it’s undeniably true there’s a dangerous race to the bottom within far-right spaces, a race which certain Nevada politicians and candidates are all too happy to participate in. Yes, openly rooting for the Taliban to defeat the woke generals and make Biden look bad demonstrates a darkly logical form of commitment to the in-group (Hail Moloch!). Even so, it would take a galling lack of charity to assume that Victor Joecks, as a conservative, agrees with Michelle Malkin that, “the defeat of the U.S. government in Afghanistan is unequivocally a positive development” — especially since he just wrote an article arguing the opposite.

That’s why, in much the same way we shouldn’t trust anyone who assumes the furthest-right voices represent every Republican in Nevada (though I’m certainly not opposed to canvassing elected Republicans from time to time to find out if they agree with these voices), we should also perhaps be skeptical of any interpretation of critical race theory produced by shameless media personalities who are openly looking for weapons to wield in a culture war of their own choosing.

Having said all that, Victor Joecks is right — I’m going to pause here to note that the phrase “Victor Joecks is right” has never been published in The Nevada Independent before today, and yes, I checked — about this much: There are useful lessons we can learn from the fall of Afghanistan. None of them, however, have anything to do with critical race theory, which shouldn’t be surprising. If the tables were turned and Afghan soldiers stopped occupying Nevada, it would require a nearly lethal dose of solipsism for some hypothetical Afghan opinion columnist to assume their rushed evacuation of Carson City heralded the advancement or demise of one sect of Afghan political doctrine over another.

No, the lessons worth learning from our failed occupation of Afghanistan are much more firmly rooted in the conditions experienced by the Afghan people — and the experiences the U.S. military, led by American political interests, imposed upon those same people, frequently at gunpoint.

A good lesson to start with would be the utter failure of opium suppression.

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Nearly two hundred years ago, two countries fought against each other in the Opium Wars. One side of the conflict produced highly valuable trade goods; the other side produced little of value, but sought commercial access to those highly valuable trade goods. There was, however, one valuable good produced within the jurisdiction of the second country which could be sold in the first country, if it were legal to do so: opium. Trouble was, the country producing the valuable trade goods was concerned enough about the addictive nature of opium, and the concomitant public health concerns, to prohibit opium’s importation and consumption outright.

So, to overcome that prohibition and rebuild a positive balance of trade, the British invaded China and compelled the Chinese government to legalize opium importation and consumption — twice.

Half a century later, upper-class traders, lower-class sailors, and Chinese immigrants brought their habits home at a time when many religions targeting middle class Europeans and Americans openly demanded adherents abstain from anything remotely interesting. Latter-Day Saints infamously forbade the consumption of alcohol and hot beverages, including coffee and tea; Seventh-Day Adventists, meanwhile, added fried and spicy food to the list. And though it’s not quite true to claim that plain corn flakes were invented to discourage masturbation, it is true that many educated individuals of the time, including Seventh-Day Adventist J.H. Kellogg, believed a plainer, less stimulating diet would result in fewer unhygienic stimulations more generally.

To be fair, industrial production and the widespread use of hand soap came later.

Needless to say, a class of people who believed sprinkling black pepper on eggs was a spicy step towards the dark side did not think highly of opium. Or alcohol. Or cannabis. Or prize boxing. Or gambling. Or prostitution. Consuming or participating in these activities was what shiftless, lazy poets and dirty, low-class sailors did. If we prohibit each of these activities, so the theory went, perhaps there will be fewer opium-addicted writer-aristocrats to support and the working class might actually be sober enough to put some effort into their labors — for once.

Trouble was, the abstentious middle class was never large enough to achieve political goals on its own. Building a winning coalition which would reliably support prohibitionist policies always required an extra ingredient — racists and xenophobes. Railing against the supposed evils of Chinese-run opium dens and “drug-crazed, sex-mad negroes” in particular was an easy way to include them into the coalition and achieve the political goal of banning non-prescription opium use. Their efforts were ultimately successful — first, through the passage of the International Opium Convention of 1912, the first international drug control treaty, then followed by the domestic passage of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act in 1914.

President Nixon simply continued this practice when he launched his War on Drugs in 1971.

Since then, the United States has maintained a posture of militant drug control — and by militant, I mean that literally. According to the Transnational Institute’s report, “Reluctant Recruits: The US Military and the War on Drugs,” as the Cold War reached its end during the 1980s, the U.S. government searched for a new mission for the military — and eventually settled on the militarization of the Drug War, especially in Latin America. For some within the military, this was a chance to demonstrate what they learned about fighting guerrilla insurgencies and maintaining close ties with military forces and civilian leadership in places where drug suppliers were known to operate — a chance which President Bush’s (the elder one) Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney, became a leading supporter of after his appointment in 1989.

By the end of the 1990s, however, officials within the Pentagon were growing concerned. Many of the Latin American militaries were only notionally loyal to their civilian leadership during the best of times; giving them American arms and training and encouraging them to participate in domestic law enforcement (something which the Posse Comitatus Act expressly forbids the U.S. military from doing itself without congressional approval) was not improving matters. Additionally, cocaine production was merely shifted from territories American military advisors and Latin American militaries could easily reach to territories deeper in the Andes and the Amazon — the actual amount of cocaine reaching American streets remained unchanged. 

Meanwhile, Afghanistan was the world’s primary source of opium and heroin — until 2001, that is.

***

Say what you will about the Taliban, especially when September 11th happened, but you have to hand it to them — they really knew how to keep opium production in Afghanistan under control.

By the time Osama bin Laden gave the U.S. military something to do, the Taliban achieved two objectives: First, it successfully controlled roughly 90 percent of Afghanistan. Second, it reduced opium poppy farming in Afghanistan by 99 percent within a single year.

Naturally, we fixed that.

When the United States invaded Afghanistan with the goal of overthrowing the Taliban and finding the mastermind behind the September 11th attacks, it didn’t take much to achieve the first objective. Opium, unfortunately, is the only crop most Afghan farmers can actually produce and market for export; legal crops are simply too competitive to market against. Consequently, it wasn’t hard for the American military to find public support on the ground for overthrowing the people who eliminated the livelihoods of many Afghan people.

As for the second objective — finding Osama bin Laden and bringing him to justice — well… 

Because Osama bin Laden fled to Pakistan, a nuclear-armed “ally,” the U.S. military needed something to justify its continued presence in Afghanistan while it waited to find, capture, and ultimately kill America’s most wanted terrorist. In classic military tradition, our political class gave them two competing missions — build a popular, stable government in Afghanistan and control opium production.

By 2004, the mission to control opium production had already failed. Ten percent of Afghanistan’s population was re-employed in growing, harvesting, and exporting opium. Nowadays, Afghanistan is responsible for 85 percent of the world’s opium production and is increasingly becoming a regional source for methamphetamines as well. 

This time around, the Taliban learned their lesson. The last time they took power, they responded to Western pressure and banned opium production, only to sacrifice political and economic support in the process. This time around, they know that, if they want to gain and keep power, they need to make it easier for Afghans to earn a living — and the way Afghan farmers earn a living is by growing and harvesting opium. Besides, the Taliban has to fund its operations somehow — which it does, through a modest 6 percent sales tax on opium sales.

***

Flip the script —picture, if you might, the Afghan military invading Nevada (yes, we’re using our imaginations today). Further imagine that the Afghan military banned gaming and drinking within its jurisdiction. How stable and economically prosperous would Nevada be? How easy would our state be to occupy? How long would it take for Nevadans to set up illicit speakeasies and underground gambling establishments to keep ourselves entertained and employed? How quickly would we flip on our putatively “friendly” Afghan occupiers, especially if they periodically bombed our bars and casinos? Who would we willingly ally ourselves with to return our state back to normal — well, our performatively libertarian-ish version of normal, anyway?

The sad truth is, if we actually wanted to defeat the Taliban, the easiest way would have been to legalize opium production and put them out of business. Afghanistan has roughly 500,000 acres of opium poppies under production; if Nevada’s farmers switched from alfalfa to opium, that would add more than 300,000 acres of production, dramatically reducing the Taliban’s profit margins while simultaneously improving economic conditions for Nevada’s farmers. 

It’s not like alfalfa farming is easy on Nevada’s sparse water supplies — it requires anywhere from 24 to 46 inches of net precipitation each year, which must either fall from the sky (which it doesn’t) or be extracted from elsewhere via irrigation. Opium, by contrast, grows best in dry, warm, temperate climates without heavy rainfall — like Afghanistan and Nevada. It also responds well to irrigation, as past studies of Afghan irrigation systems attest. Unlike Afghanistan, Nevada’s farmers also have reliable access to modern technology and capital. If given a chance, Nevada’s farmers could grow the Taliban right out of business.

On the public health front, meanwhile, it’s undeniably true opium is addictive. So is alcohol and tobacco. Difference is, instead of smuggling 190-proof distilled spirits to consumers and hoping we don’t pour too much laboratory-grade alcohol into our cocktails, alcohol producers instead mass-produce much tastier and far less dangerous alcoholic beverages, like beer, mead, and malt beverages. Similarly, if given a legal chance, most opium addicts would probably avoid heroin and fentanyl if less potent and less addictive opium products were available over the counter instead. 

Meanwhile, research into nicotine addiction was made considerably easier by having a population of legal nicotine addicts, none of whom were under any meaningful threat of prosecution for consuming tobacco, to treat. Nicotine addicts, for example, can purchase patches and gums over the counter, all without fear of prosecution or shame. Opium addicts, on the other hand, have to beg for methadone from sketchy clinics, where they’re legally required to get stared at while they take each dose. Thankfully, COVID-19 taught us the hard way that letting opium addicts self-manage their medication at home leads to far better outcomes than public shaming and artificial scarcity — whether policy makers will take note and update both their assumptions and our laws remains unknown.

Opium prohibition is a century-old policy that was never necessary before its passage and has proven to be consistently disastrous ever since. Our current policies against opium are impoverishing Nevada’s farmers, enriching the Taliban, preventing treatment of Nevada’s addicts, and leading to unnecessary and expensive military adventures overseas.

End the Drug War. Send the troops home. Let Nevadans put the Taliban out of business.

David Colborne was active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he blogged intermittently on his personal blog, ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate, and served on the Executive Committee for his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is now an IT manager, a registered non-partisan voter, and the father of two sons. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at david@colbornemmx.com.