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UN: Report Details Afghan Opium Trail Of Trafficking And Abuse

  • Robert McMahon

A new report by the UN drug control agency says Afghanistan's opium production is down but is still a source of major trafficking throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The report also registers disturbing trends in drug abuse, especially in Central Asia. RFE/RL's UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 23 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention says in its latest report that Afghanistan remains the world's main source of opium despite a decrease in production last year.

The drug control office said in the report released yesterday that the production of opium in Afghanistan fell 30 percent last year compared with 1999. This was due to factors such as drought, the start of a crackdown by the Taliban regime, and some UN pilot programs aimed at developing alternate crops.

But the 4,800 tons produced in Taliban-held regions still provided most of the heroin trafficked to Western Europe, the most lucrative market. And UN drug control officials say there are increasing signs of drug abuse and related problems along the trafficking trail from Afghanistan to Europe, particularly in Central Asia.

Opium is used to produce addictive drugs like heroin and morphine. The executive director of the UN drug control agency, Pino Arlacchi, told a news conference in London yesterday that the biggest rise in addiction to these opiates was in countries closest to Afghanistan.

"Countries like Pakistan, like China, like Iran are experiencing a dramatic growth of abuse. Just to give you an idea, the number of heroin addicts in Pakistan in the last 15 years rose from a negligible number to 1.5 million, which is more than all addicts of Western Europe put together."

Iran, by comparison, has an estimated 500,000 heroin addicts. The UN report estimates there are 1.5 million opiate abusers in Eastern Europe, slightly higher than in Western Europe. It says the largest market for opiates in Eastern Europe is Russia, with a fast-rising population of addicts estimated at 500,000.

The director of the UN drug control agency's New York office, Vincent McClean, says this trend is not surprising, given the social, political and economic upheaval the region has experienced since the fall of communism.

McClean told RFE/RL that governments in the region, especially Central Asia, need to act quickly to combat the problem. He said this requires extra resources for halting the trafficking as well as drug prevention and drug treatment programs.

"I think time for dealing with problems of drug abuse in Central Asia is very, very short. I think there are serious challenges presented to governments in Central Asia by drug trafficking. First of all, drug traffickers tend to be very well resourced and in a position to bribe or sometimes to bully governments."

UN officials say there are now two main routes for exporting Afghan opium to Europe. The traditional route went through Iran, Turkey and the Balkan countries. But Iran's tougher drug-trafficking policy has forced an alternate route through Tajikistan and Russia to Europe.

The UN drug control report shows increasing rates of drug abuse in countries along the trafficking routes. McClean notes what recent health studies have indicated: the rise in intravenous drug use has brought about a clear rise in cases of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

"Injecting drug use is responsible for an increasing amount of HIV infection in these countries and you can almost track the trafficking routes if you plot the incidents of new cases of HIV."

But officials with the UN drug control agency say there have been a number of successes in combating the illegal global drug trade. They say production is now increasingly concentrated in a smaller number of countries.

Countries like Iran and Pakistan, for example, have virtually eliminated the cultivation of opium poppies. And Iran has moved aggressively to intercept traffickers in recent years. It also has lost hundreds of law enforcement officials in gun battles with traffickers.

UN officials cite another front-line state in the opium struggle -- Tajikistan -- as an example of drug-fighting success. The UN drug agency last year contributed about $2.5 million to help Tajikistan set up a government anti-narcotic agency and to help Russian border guards on the Tajik-Afghan border combat traffickers. As a result, authorities in Tajikistan made a number of major drug seizures last year.

The UN report released yesterday said that a main goal of the drug agency is to phase out poppy cultivation in Afghanistan during the next five years. It wants to provide education and health facilities and employment outside the agricultural sector to achieve that goal.

McClean says the drug agency also wants to encourage governments in Central Asia and Eastern Europe to increase their efforts aimed at reducing the demand for illicit drugs.

"They have little in the way of resources to spare for drug demand reduction efforts, but it's very important that these demand reduction issues are given proper attention. It's a very important part of concerted action to fight against drug abuse."

The UN report showed an increase in trafficking throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in other illicit drugs, such as cocaine, cannabis and synthetic drugs such as methamphetamines. The most widely consumed illegal drug in the world is cannabis. Heroin and cocaine are the most costly in terms of treatment, medical care and drug-related violence.

(Excerpts from the report can be found at: