Tobias Ellwood on Poppy Relief

Due to Mr Ellwood’s apparent links to Poppy Relief I decided that it may be a good idea to visit him to gain a further insight into his view in using the Afghan opium for licit uses. Tobias Ellwood is a Conservative MP was first elected to parliament in 2005 for Bournemouth East. He has since 2006 publically campaigned about opium in Afghanistan though there does seem to be some changes in his opinion the use of Afghan opium. Before going to meet him I had wrongly assumed that his opinion would be based on using Afghan opium for the licit trade (creating opium based pain killers) this was due mainly to an article in the guardian where Mr Ellwood stated that he has a belief in the use of Afghan poppy for the licit trade. This opinion however appears to have changed since that article was published.

Tobias Ellwood’s opinion mainly seems to revolve round the need to increase the infrastructure in Afghanistan so that farmers can get their products to market. On this point he said that the “International community is now starting to understand the need for serious infrastructure” in order to create “proper market link”. He thought if you provided the proper links to get products to market then farmers would be more interested in switching to alternative crops. Tobias Ellwood from the questions I asked didn’t really seem to be into using Afghan opium in Britain to help alleviate the shortage of opiate pain killers.

When asked about his relationship with Poppy Relief he didn’t really seem to remember being part of it. At first glance Mr Ellwood being a member (according to Frank Fields web site) could be thought of as kind of bizarre. After all Mr Ellwood does not seem to support long term licit use of Afghan Opium but reading further into Poppy Relief, paying attention to in particular editorials by the founder of Poppy Relief (Frank Field) in the BMJ and Telegraph it does seem that Poppy Relief does have a view which is not in conflict with Mr Ellwood’s. Poppy Relief  believes Afghan poppy should be used in the production of opiate pain killers but only in the short term as Frank Field said in a 2007 article in the Telegraph “The aim must not simply be to enter an endless bidding war with the drug barons. The objective must be to purchase the crop, while simultaneously redeploying the huge budget currently spent on destroying it so as to buy a breathing space, so that farmers can be paid to build up alternative cash crops.” Mr Ellwood broadly supports such an idea therefore it can’t be seen as a contradiction that he does not support using Afghan opium for licit purposes in the long term. His opinion however differs slightly with his idea of a six year plan where an alternative crop is grown on one sixth of the famers land each year till the farm is completely opium free.

Though despite this I was quite surprised that Tobias Ellwood did not support using Afghan poppy for pain-medication especially considering a Guardian article in 2006 (‘Back Afghan opium legalisation, Tories urge Cameron’). The Guardian said that Tobias Ellwood believed that “opium farming should be licensed so that the harvest could be sold legally on the open market, bringing in income for Afghan farmers and helping to plug a global shortage of opiate-based medicines.” The language in the article seemed to indicate that he believed in a long term role in Afghanistan being able to provide opiate based pain killers yet when talking to him he seemed to be against Afghan opium being used in the long term. Mr Ellwood when talking to me thought that by having a big legal market in Afghanistan it would have a major impact for the major licit growing countries; India and Turkey.

He seemed to think if you had a big licit market in Afghanistan there would be quite a few issues. Firstly Infrastructure issues, secondly stability issues and thirdly a knock on effect. Infrastructure wise he believed that Afghanistan does not have the proper infrastructure compared to India and Turkey to be able to effectively produce a licit poppy market, neither did he think that there is the stability (compared to India and Turkey) the main point raised though was the knock on effect. He thought that by bringing Afghanistan into the licit market that would have a knock on effect in Turkey and India potentially meaning that the illicit markets in both those countries end up increasing substantially thereby not solving the problem merely spreading it.

I personally believe that this view is completely wrong and that the only way to decrease illicit opium is to allow it to become licit. In the 1970’s before Turkeys market became licit up to 80% of America’s heroin supply came from Turkey. Which is similar to the statistics regularly brought up when talking about Afghanistan. If there was a willingness to create a duopoly in the form of India and Turkey then surely there should a willingness to appreciate the facts and appreciate the best way forward for Afghanistan is allowing Afghanistan opium to help tackle the global shortage. The global shortage however like Mr Tobias rightly pointed out is not just about a shortage of medications but several other factors. One of which I believe needs to change is reforming laws in some countries so patients in need of opiate base painkillers get the necessary amount to relieve their pain.

Up to 2006 it seems that Mr Ellwood also agreed that not bringing Afghanistan into the licit market was wrong. In an article in the BBC he said that “"If Turkey can successfully make the transition from a culture of widespread unregulated poppy cultivation to a licensed, controlled system of poppy cultivation, a similar proposal should be tested in Afghanistan.”  This backs up the Guardians claim that Mr Ellwood supported a long term use for Afghan opium it also shows how Mr Ellwood’s opinion on the use of Afghan Opium for licit uses has flip flopped.

The three flawed arguments that Mr Ellwood used when explaining why he currently does not support Afghan growing a licit opium crop for long term uses just doesn’t add up considering the worldwide shortage. The argument that Turkey and India are lifted into some special exception and can’t be complimented by another country is ludicrous and ridiculous. The reason why in the 1981 the USA agreed to India and Turkey providing 80% (80/20 rule) of the world’s licit opium is a similar reason to why Afghan opium needs to become licit. In India’s and Turkey’s case it was down to it being impossible to stop the illicit market through other means (just like Afghanistan). When 90% of the opium for Heroin comes from Afghanistan surely it is safe to reason that a new strategy needs to be put in place something similar to what Turkey and India have.

Starting to make Afghanistan’s opium market licit is just good planning, the world demand for opium related pain killers is not going down it is going up and as more developing countries populations such as India increase in wealth so too will the need for better health care including opiate pain killers. For instance if everyone in need of opiate based pain killers managed to get them then the Senlis Council estimates that the world would need to produce 10,000 tons of opium a year, that is more than double what Afghanistan produces.  Using half of the money that was spent per year on eradication of poppy in Afghanistan would be enough to buy the whole afghan poppy harvest. If the US and its allies did that they could provide cheap opiate related pain killers to developing countries which don’t have the funds to afford them. Instead the US and its allies have ended up abandoning the eradication program and ending up with no proper strategy to decrease the illicit opium trade in Afghanistan.

What I found really quite weird was when asked about the shortage in the UK of opiate related pain killers Mr Ellwood did not seem to really know that there is quite a large number of people who believe there is a shortage including NHS doctors who have publically called for the use of Afghan opium to help stop the shortage in the UK . I found his denial of a shortage in the UK quite bizarre considering he talked about a shortage of Diamorphine in Britain in a debate in parliament in 2007 saying that “ironically, there is a shortage of Diamorphine in this country”. Another reason why the denial of a shortage in the UK was quite weird was that he is apparently a member of Poppy Relief whose main premise behind using Afghan opium was to help alleviate the opiate based pain killer shortage in the UK.

Worldwide he did agree there was a shortage of opiate pain killers like morphine getting to patients. With facts such as 90% of pain killers are taken by people in developed countries it would be alarming if he somehow denied there was a worldwide shortage. He did not however believe it was due only to a shortage of opium but mainly “due to the infrastructure in developing countries”.

So what does he believe is the way forward for Afghanistan well it revolves round building better infrastructure and what he calls the ‘six year plan’ (parliamentary debate). The infrastructure need in his opinion has been neglected by the international community despite its importance as the “Infrastructure [is] pivotal to change so opium does not dominate the market” in his mind the International community is now understanding the need for proper infrastructure. The Six year plan involves gradually replacing an opium crop the plan would involve a famer replacing “one sixth of their poppy crop with another crop” until eventually after six years the opium crops have been completely replaced by other crops. There would be a limited market for Afghan opium according to him (Based on a parliamentary debate on the issue) to allow the opium to be used for licit purposes during the program according to what he said in the parliamentary debate any farmer who does not sign up will have their crops eradicated.

He doesn’t believe the illicit market will ever go away as he said on two occasions it is “Not possible to completely remove illicit opium” as it will “move to other areas”. This seems to me to also show that Mr Ellwood firstly thinks that eradication is a waste of money but secondly that the idea that you can get rid of illicit crops worldwide is impossible. You destroy the opium, decrease the dependence on opium in Afghanistan and increase wealth through other means and it will just be moved to other areas.

Mr Ellwood’s six year plan idea is an interesting proposition but a better idea would be to harness Afghan’s opium for licit purposes not just for a short term transitional period but for the long term. In a world where the population of several developing countries such as China and India are rapidly increasing in wealth and other countries are realising the need to provide better pain killers the worlds need for licit opium will continue to increase and countries such as Afghanistan should be used for to help prevent a opiate shortage turning into a crisis.