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UN: Report Cites Internet, Afghanistan As Contributors To Global Drug Trade

In its 2002 annual report, the UN International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) outlines the dangers that globalization and new technologies pose in fighting the drug trade. The report says that resumed poppy cultivation in Afghanistan will complicate the peace and development process in that country and the region overall. But the INCB reports that the first eight months of "Operation Topaz" -- an initiative aimed at seizing components for heroin production -- have seen positive results.

New York, 27 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The INCB, in previous annual reports, has mentioned growing use of the Internet as contributing to the global drug trade. But in its 2001 annual report, the INCB goes one step further, saying the Internet poses a major threat to international efforts to curb drug distribution and production.

The report (available at says that drugs are being sold over the Internet, private chat rooms are being used by drug dealers to do business, and online pharmacies are selling prescription-only drugs over the web.

The INCB is particularly concerned that young people are at higher risk from drug dealers in cyberspace because of their greater exposure to the medium. Presenting the report, INCB member Herbert Okun said the freedom and flexibility of the Internet have been quickly embraced by criminal groups and put to efficient use in their dealings.

The report notes that the growth of the medium has made detection of drug-related money laundering even more complicated because the increase in online banking and deregulation of capital markets allow for the conduct of virtually anonymous electronic transactions around the globe.

While noting that Myanmar (Burma) in 2001 accounted for most of the world's illicit cultivation of the poppies used in heroin manufacturing, Okun quotes the report as saying Afghanistan -- which in recent years has suffered severe droughts and where the former ruling Taliban militia banned poppy cultivation in 2000 -- has seen its heroin production drop, but perhaps only temporarily.

"For the last decade, Afghanistan has been the world's largest producer of heroin. Last year, because of a drought in Afghanistan, production shifted to Myanmar, but Afghanistan clearly has the capacity to become again the world's largest producer of heroin," Okun says.

Okun adds that farmers in Afghanistan -- where poppies are by far the easiest and most profitable crop -- have families to feed and should not be blamed until they are given an opportunity to survive growing alternative crops like wheat, cotton, and sorghum.

"You can't blame the peasants who will grow whatever they feel they need to grow to feed their families," Okun says. "This means serious crop-substitution programs and a lot of help from the international community to help the peasants who are not at fault any more than coca farmers in Colombia or Bolivia are at fault."

According to the INCB report, Afghanistan's neighbors Iran and Pakistan are facing destabilization due to growing drug addiction in those countries. Okun says that Iran plays a major role in fighting drug production and trafficking. He says that 80 percent of the world's poppy seizures and 90 percent of its heroin seizures are made in Iran. Pakistan, he adds, has also made a concerted effort to fight drug trafficking and production.

But Okun says the situation is more complicated when it comes to Afghanistan's northern neighbors Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. These two countries, he says, have become host to major trafficking routes leading into Russia and beyond to Western Europe.

"The Tajik-Afghan border is patrolled by Russian units. There are Russian soldiers on that border. And they pick up, seize a lot of the heroin," Okun says. "We're not sure how much the Tajiks themselves seize. I suspect [it is] very little. And Turkmenistan -- much more has to be done to stop the flow."

Okun says another challenge is the significant amount of heroin reserves suspected to remain in Afghanistan. That, paired with the apparent resumption of poppy cultivation -- despite a recent ban on the production, use, and trafficking of all drugs by Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai -- makes the country a major source of concern.

"Afghanistan, under the Taliban, held a supply of heroin -- that is heroin, not just the poppies -- that [INCB] estimated, along with [the UN Drug Control Program] at a three- to six-year supply. Some of it has been unloaded since the [U.S.-led] war began [in Afghanistan in October], but plenty of it is there anyway. So the problem is a very real one, both [the] growing and supply of heroin that floods out of the country," Okun says.

The INCB report also notes a shifting trend in drug distribution, with a reversal in the traditional path of most drugs traveling from developing to developed nations. Okun says a number of synthetic drugs like the mood-enhancer Ecstasy, which is manufactured in the Netherlands, are finding larger and larger markets in the developing world.