In a report released today in Vienna, the UNODC says Afghanistan accounted for practically all the world's illegal opium production during 2006.
The report says Afghanistan produced dramatically more opium in 2006, increasing its yield by almost 50 percent from a year earlier and pushing global opium production to a new record high.
The authors say that the Afghan increase boosted global opium production from 3,800 tons in 2005 to 6,600 tons in 2006. Opium is the main ingredient for heroin.
UNODC research expert Thomas Pietschmann says Afghanistan is clearly a black spot in the world when it comes to cultivation of the opium poppy.
"The really serious problem we face in the world, this is Afghanistan," Pietschmann says. "Ninety-two percent of the world's [opium] production is in Afghanistan. We have seen a dramatic increase in production in the year 2006 -- 49 percent in production in Afghanistan -- mostly in southern provinces. And there is no question that Afghanistan is the weak link at the moment."
UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa warns that within Afghanistan, the insurgency-plagued southern province of Helmand is becoming the center of supply, with illicit cultivation larger than in the rest of the country put together.
Costa says that if the opium production in Helmand could be curbed, it would rid the world of the most dangerous source of its most dangerous narcotic. He blames the endemic poverty, corruption, and warfare for creating the right conditions for such massive production of illegal drugs.
"The situation in Afghanistan is not acceptable, but not only because of the drug situation -- because of the poverty, because of instability, because of the corruption, because of the insurgency," Costa says. "The great increase in drug cultivation and [drug] processing which we have seen in the last couple of years is a consequence of that. It's not necessarily the trigger of all that."
The report says that no other drug in the world is produced in such a concentrated, single area.
Pietschmann says that what is needed to wean farmers away from poppy cultivation is to end the insurgency and give local farmers an alternative with which they can earn money. He says that, at present, the link between the Taliban-led insurgency and the cultivation of opium poppies is clear.
"What has to be done is a combination of strengthening the rule of law -- there's a lot of insurgents in the south of the country, precisely in these areas where you have the highest levels of cultivation and production in the country -- but in parallel, you have to strengthen alternative development assistance going to the farmers," Pietschmann says. "At the moment, because there is such an insurgency, all of the alternative development programs are not working in the south of the country. So you have to break this vicious circle."
Another significant change in the illegal drug market is that laboratories inside Afghanistan are now converting 90 percent of the opium into heroin and morphine before smuggling it around the world. AFP news agency quotes UNODC officials as saying in Kabul that until two years ago, Afghanistan exported almost exclusively raw opium.
The report says that even if the outlook in Afghanistan is bleak, there has been success in curbing opium production in the so-called Golden Triangle, where Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos meet. There, the cultivation of poppies has fallen by almost 80 percent in the last decade.