The End of Heroin

End of Heroin

The UNODC has announced that a fungus is killing the Afghan opium crop. Maria Antonio Costas has said that the fungus is infecting about a half of the Afghani  opium crop, an economic disaster for Afghan farmers. The area’s most affected are those were the insurgency against NATO is strongest.

The farmers think that NATO have infected their fields with the fungus, Maria Antonio Costas denies this. However in 2000 the BBC reported that the US and the UK had funded research into a an anti –opium fungus by an Uzbek scientist Professor Abdukarimov and a British scientist Mike Greaves. The work was overseen by the United Nations Drug Control Program. The UK made a £100,000 donation to this work, in 2002, The Times quoted a British government source as saying "whole fields withered and died" in tests of the fungus in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.  "It is a potent weapon.  We're just waiting for the go-ahead," the source said.  According to a confidential Foreign Office note cited by the Times, "Opium ... will be destroyed. ... It is possible to imagine Afghanistan without a drug industry for the first time in a decade."

The US backed SCOPE (Strategy for Coca and Opium Poppy Elimination) intended to use fungi to attack both opium and coca was voted against by the UN general assembly in 1998 but the US, UK and United Nations Drug Control Program continue to research these agents. The tests of the effect of the fungus Pleospora papaveracea on opium poppies were conducted at the Institute of Genetics in Tashkent, Uzbekistan (a former site of Soviet biological-weapons research). The anti-coca fungus, Fusarium Oxysporum f. sp. Erythroxyli, was discovered accidentally when it wiped out a test plot of coca being grown in Hawaii. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) developed the strain “Isolate EN-4,” which is intended to eradicate the coca plant, and which has been pushed for use in Colombia.

Does this mean the end of heroin? The plant will adapt fairly quickly but it will wreck havoc with the livelihoods of Afghan farmers, however if this has been done once it is likely that scientist will have the potential to do it again, thus making the growing of opium poppy more difficult and leading an an 'arms race' between the plant and the scientists, which the plant is always likely to win. Although this will lead to the use of more and more dangerous biological agents, there is a huge risk of the fungus jumping species and destroying food crops.

The ability to make synthetic opiates has jumped forward in the last year so there is little risk to the manufacture of opiate pain killers in the long term, but the use of an infection like this to destroy a plant is a very risky way of tackling the failure of the global drug control regime.

In the short term it will push up the value of heroin. This will have to effects increasing the value of existing stock piles and the street price of heroin, increasing the likelihood that users will inject rather than smoke the drug. And thus increasing the chance of the transmission of HIV and other blood borne viruses.