Friday, February 16, 2007

Opium program needed, Ignatieff says

Opium program needed, Ignatieff says
Seeks production licensing in Afghanistan for peaceful pharmaceutical purposes

MIKE BLANCHFIELD, CanWest News Service February 16, 2007

Canada should spearhead an international effort to license opium production in Afghanistan for peaceful pharmaceutical uses to combat the country's chronic economic dependence on the illegal narcotic, deputy Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff said yesterday.

Ignatieff endorsed the proposal of a controversial London-based think tank, the Senlis Council, which has called for a pilot project to study the licensing of the Afghan opium crop - the backbone of the world's illicit heroin trade and the cornerstone of Afghanistan's impoverished economy.

The council, which has issued a series of scathing reports on the world's failures in the war-torn country, has argued processing facilities should be set up in Afghanistan to convert the opium from Afghan poppies into codeine and morphine to meet a shortage of pain medicines in the developing world.

Essentially legalizing Afghanistan's No. 1 criminal activity would revitalize the country's economy, the council says.

Ignatieff said he has spoken to Senlis representatives at length about this proposal, which they unveiled last summer, and he is convinced of its merits.

"I've stress tested their proposal. I don't buy anything until I knock it around. But I believe these guys. The Senlis Council has demonstrated there is a market for such medicine," Ignatieff said in a keynote speech at the annual gathering of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.

Ignatieff made the pitch to a military audience of hundreds attending Canada's largest security and military symposium.

Ignatieff's address was also a partisan attack on what he said are the Conservative government's failings in Afghanistan.

"Canada can lead by providing political leadership ... on a new strategy to provide technical assistance and infrastructure funding to help make the Senlis pilot project succeed," Ignatieff said.

"Because of all we've sacrificed, we have the right to speak."

Ignatieff said the Liberals are immensely proud of Canada's military contribution to the mission in Kandahar, which they initiated almost two years ago, but accused the current Conservative government of botching the mission by shortchanging development.

Ignatieff also agreed with the Senlis Council's contention that a poppy eradication program in southern Afghanistan is bound to fail, and will turn the country's peasant farmers against the foreign soldiers on its soil.

Poppy eradication teams came under attack in the southern Afghan province of Helmand again this week.

The Afghan government and the United Nations drug agency have dismissed the Senlis proposal as unworkable.

Gen. Rick Hillier, the chief of the defence staff, has also criticized the Senlis Council as lacking credibility.

Ottawa Citizen

Online Extra: With its Burger King and Tim Hortons, Kandahar Air Field - a sprawling community of tents and trailers - is about as Afghan as Ponoka, Alta.