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Could Mexico regulate and legalize opium cultivation

July 3, 2016  |  Posted by: Francesca Falzarano
Could Mexico regulate and legalize opium cultivation

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The opium poppy is a common plant that thrives all over the world but is used for vastly different purposes. In the UK, opium is grown to manufacture pain-killers for the legal pharmaceutical market; while Afghanistan utilizes the plant to produce heroin.

According to Alternet.org, the Mexican state of Guerrero is the biggest opium-producing state in Mexico, which is also the most violent. The plants that are grown in this region give rise to about half of the heroin consumed in the United States. As heroin use in the U.S. continues to reach near epidemic proportions, and has been the cause of over 28,000 fatal overdoses, the demand for the drug continues to increase.

One report indicated that at least 1,287 communities in Guerrero are financially dependent on opium poppy agriculture. Contrary to popular belief, the individuals growing the opium are doing it because they need to in order to guarantee their survival. The head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Mexico stated: “It is not the drug production that generates underdevelopment; it is the lack of development that generates the opium cultivation.”

According to Guerrero’s governor, eradicating opium poppies in the region would have adverse economic effects on the people who are so desperately relying on it. The governor instead proposes that the communities should be allowed to grow opium poppy for the legal drug market. If farmers can manufacture the plant for a regulated enterprise, instead of a criminal one, it can work to disempower the cartels that are currently making huge profits from their crops.

However, this type of transformation can not happen overnight and is not without its problems. According to a briefing by the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, Turkey was able successfully to navigate a shift in their opium business. In 1967, Turkey was authorized to claim the rank of a “traditional opium-producing country,” which suggested that it could remain cultivating opium poppies, as long as production was strictly regulated and used for only medical purposes.

However, in the beginning stages of implementation, law enforcement struggled to adjust the diversion of legally produced opium from the illegal heroin market. By the end of the 1960s, Turkey was providing approximately 80% of the heroin used in the United States. As a result, in 1972, a ban on all opium production was implemented for two years so the ministry of agriculture could take the necessary methods to monitor all growing operations.

As a result of the ban, approximately 70,000-100,000 farmers became licensed to grow opium poppies, and in 2005 it was believed that about 600,000 used the trade to earn a living. The vast increase in opium poppy farmers resulted in an export income of well over $60 million.
The new system helped Turkish farmers to seek out alternative and legal buyers for their plant, which in turn, assisted in the reduction of illegal production.

Although the method, not without its flaws, served as a solution to the illicit drug trade in Turkey, it also resulted in problems for other countries such as Afganistan and Mexico, where criminal cartels came to the rise and began capitalizing on a newly open market.

Turkey’s success in navigating their opium production away from the illegal drug trade created what is known as a “balloon effect,” which instead of eliminating the problem of illicit opium distribution, merely displaced it to other locations. As Alternet.org describes, “it is like air moving around in a squeezed balloon.”

Thus, although transitioning the state of Guerrero from illegal to legal drug production may provide localized success to the state and even the country, there are vast differences between present-day and Turkey all of those decades ago.

Back in the 1970s, there was an international deficit of opium for the medical market, which meant there was a high demand for the product. Conversely, it has been argued that currently there is insufficient demand to warrant an increase in legal opium supply from Mexico.

Additionally, there is skepticism regarding whether the states within Mexico have the institutions and infrastructure needed to regulate the trade legally. Experts say in Guerrero, the law is reportedly “weak”, and particularly in its rural areas, support from the state is nearly non-existent. Therefore, it’s more than likely illicit opium production may easily continue simultaneously with any new legal policies that are implemented.

In April, Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico’s president, summoned the need for the legal regulation of drug markets. Recent advancements in Canada, too, propose ubiquitous questions about how to deal with illegal opium production and the heroin market that it fulfills.

In Canada, authorities have pledged to allow the use of pharmaceutical-grade heroin to long-term users, which is quite a controversial method of treatment, although it has been supported by a myriad of research from similar initiatives conducted in other countries.

A legalized and controlled provision of the drug to individuals is believed to be able to put an end the illicit market in the long term. Some believe that this method may be the only way to bring about decreases in the range of the heroin trade needed to meaningfully improve security and stability in some of the weakest, and even the most violent, countries in the world.

As the history of the drug trade has proven, if demand exists someone will always seek to supply it; thus, who controls it may be an essential component of eventually putting an end to it.

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