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Afghanistan: UN Says Drug Flow Could Continue For Years (Part II)

A recent tour of Afghanistan's poppy-growing areas by UN officials has confirmed that there is almost no opium poppy cultivation in Taliban-controlled areas this year. In the second part of a two-part interview, officials of the UN Drug Control Program (UNDCP) in Vienna look at what impact the ban will have on drug smuggling from Afghanistan through neighboring Central Asian states and Iran.

Vienna, 24 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- UN drug control officials who recently toured Afghanistan have confirmed that the Taliban's ban on opium-poppy cultivation is near total in the areas the militia controls.

The drug experts say this means Afghanistan, which in recent years has produced 75 percent of the world's opium harvest, will effectively no longer be a major player in the global drug trade. The vast majority of Afghanistan's opium-poppy cultivation had been in the 90 percent of the country the Taliban now controls.

The success of the Taliban ban is good news for Afghanistan's neighboring states which, over the last decade, have been struggling to cope with a flood of cheap Afghan opium and heroin across their borders. The drugs are destined for the wealthy markets of the Gulf and Europe but large amounts have increasingly remained within the region to fuel growing populations of addicts in neighboring Central Asian states, Iran, and Pakistan.

Yet UN drug experts say it is still too early to say how quickly the Taliban's ban on growing opium poppies will reduce the smuggling of Afghan opium and heroin through the region.

Sandro Tucci, the spokesman for the UN Drug Control Program in Vienna, told RFE/RL that enough opium and opium products are believed to be currently stockpiled in Afghanistan to maintain a steady flow of drugs out of Afghanistan for at least another year.

"We can make a reasonable assumption that there are enough stockpiles of [opium], morphine-base, and semi-refined heroin to supply the market probably for the next 12 months."

But Tucci says that drug traders in Afghanistan are likely to respond to the Taliban's prohibition on poppy cultivation by trying to make their stockpiles last as long as possible. One way is to increase the volume of their opium stocks by mixing them with a variety of additives. With that mechanism, the flow of drugs out of Afghanistan could continue for years to come.

"We also know that the price of opium inside Afghanistan is skyrocketing. We know that the same kilo of opium which you could buy last year for $35, this year you have to pay between $350 and $500. And we know that while there was before a trader who would go to one of the main markets in Afghanistan and collect all the opium he wanted, today this is not the case because there is either hoarding or scarcity of supply.

"One possibility is that, with the lack of opium supply, you will have the same amount of heroin in the market, but at a very much lower grade of purity. Heroin is mixed with aspirin, with fish scales, with talcum powder, with all sorts of rubbish. It could be that the shortfall in supply will be compensated for by the criminal organizations who deal with this by an increase in impurity."

The UNDCP spokesman says that the extending of the Afghan drug supply through mixing will take place not only in Afghanistan but all along the drug's route westward. And he says that will make Afghan drugs increasingly dangerous for addicts who use them.

Asked specifically about the health hazards for addicts living in the states neighboring Afghanistan, Tucci said those users will face less danger than users in countries farther away from the source.

"Perhaps [addicts in neighboring countries] will be the ones who suffer least because [they] are very near the source. But it might affect users in Europe who are at the end of the chain. And [it is] a chain through which the heroin passes through so many hands and maybe each one of these hands will contribute a little bit [more to its impurity]."

The Taliban so far has consistently said that it intends to maintain its ban on opium-poppy cultivation next year and in successive years.

Mohammad Amirkhizi, special adviser on West Asia to the director general of the UNDCP, says that he and other drug experts who have visited Afghanistan have been assured in talks with the Taliban that the militia is serious about the ban.

"In talks with us they insisted that their policy would not change and that their policy is to implement the ban this year and, they told us, the next year and in the future. They have no plans to change their policy."

Amirkhizi and other drug experts at the UNDCP say that they remain uncertain of what motivated the Taliban to ban opium-poppy cultivation, but they believe the militia did so out of a religious conviction that opium and heroin are evil.

In previous years, the militia had banned the use of the drugs by Afghans but permitted their export abroad, even taxing the annual opium harvest. The UNDCP officials say it remains a total mystery why the Taliban suddenly changed that position even as the militia's relations with the world community in all other areas remain highly strained.