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UN Says Afghanistan's Neighbors Consume Most Of World's Opium

Afghan police inspect piles of heroin discovered during an operation in Herat in January 2010.
The UN's new "World Drug Report 2010" shows that while Afghanistan remains the world's largest opium producer, it is neighboring countries like Iran, Pakistan, and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia where a majority of the world's opium is consumed.

Afghanistan continues to account for 90 percent of the world's illicit opium and heroin production, and its neighbors for 60 percent of the global consumption.

By weight, users in those nearby countries consume more than twice as much opium per year as the as the rest of the world, at 600 tons to 340 tons.

In fact, although there are an estimated 4 million opium users worldwide, the UNODC says most usage is concentrated in Asia where there has been a long tradition of use compared to the West.

The study also estimates that Russia is the country with the highest national level of heroin consumption -- even though there are a higher number of heroin users in China.

"Transit countries are often countries which have low levels of enforcement ability -- poor areas like Central America or recently, West Africa," says Ted Leggett, a researcher for the UNODC. "[Also] Central Asia -- areas in transition or areas which are struggling with the basics of hammering down the rule of law. This makes them vulnerable to having drugs warehoused there, stockpiled and these kinds of bad consequences. Even on the receiving side -- even amongst the developing countries which consume the bulk of the drugs -- the areas where these drugs are targeted are often neglected areas, areas where the rule of law is weak in the receiving countries. Those are the areas that need to be brought back into the mainstream."

There Goes The Neighborhood

Leggett says being a country along the major transit routes for Afghan opium and heroin does not, in itself, imply higher drug-consumption levels.

"Drug problems are quite often local problems, but they are connected internationally. So the entire chain needs to be considered from the producer to the consumer," Leggett says. "But also, we need to look at each link in that chain. The 'World Drug Report' points out that despite having some 80 tons of heroin trafficked through it year after year, the Balkan region has not shown particularly high levels of drug use and not particularly high levels of drug violence associated with the drugs transiting through that region. [But] in an area like Central Asia, you will see that there are high levels of localized drug use along the drug trafficking routes."

"World Drug Report 2010" says a large volume of opium is consumed by people in Iran -- about 40 percent of all global opium consumption.

But in contrast to its high opium consumption levels, and despite its proximity to the world's largest heroin producer, the UNODC says official reports indicate that heroin consumption is relatively low in Iran -- which has an estimated 391,000 heroin users.

It says Pakistan has an estimated 500,000 heroin users. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the number of heroin users is reported to have risen from about 50,000 in 2008 to as many as 135,000 in 2009.

China has the largest number of heroin users in absolute terms -- about 2.2 million. Most of the supply in China is thought to come from Myanmar rather than Afghanistan, but traffickers of Afghan heroin are thought to be gaining shares of the illicit market in China during the past year.

Although China reportedly consumed an extraordinary amount of opium a century ago, opium use in China now appears to be much more limited.

Eurasian Habit

Taken together, it is Europe and Russia that now account for nearly half of all heroin consumption in the world.

Four countries within Europe dominate that market -- the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Germany. But the UNODC says Afghanistan is now the only known source of heroin that is consumed in Europe and in the Russian Federation.

Leggett explains that the opiate market is interlinked with severe national and international security problems -- especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"Drug production tends to occur in areas where there is a large amount of social instability -- often times, insurgency. If you look, for example, at the country that produces most of the world's heroin, it is Afghanistan. It is not a coincidence that that is true," Leggett says. "The leading producer of [processed] cocaine is Colombia. Both of these countries have got serious stability insurgency problems in parts of the country. Because there are large areas of uncontrolled land or disputed territory, it allows drugs production to occur in those areas."

Overall, the UNODC report says global drug consumption is moving away from opiates and cocaine and moving increasingly toward synthetic drugs like amphetamine-type stimulants.

UNODC director Antonio Maria Costa has called for universal access to drug treatment as a strategy to combat the world drugs trade, saying that the problem will not be solved by shifting consumption from developed countries to the developing world.

Costa says that while users in more prosperous countries have the necessary facilities to help them overcome drug addiction, this was not the case for poorer nations.

Costa concludes that drug addiction should be handled as a health issue, rather than a law enforcement issue in which users are punished with prison sentences or even execution.

based on RFE/RL and agency reports