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Why Has Drug Use Increased So Dramatically In Afghanistan?

A drug addict in the Afghan city of Herat
A drug addict in the Afghan city of Herat
A UN report that Afghanistan has one of the highest drug-use rates in the world gives a new and disturbing look at the grip opium and heroin hold on the country.

The study, released on June 21, says that 8 percent of the adult Afghan population aged 15 to 64 suffers from drug addiction. That is twice the global average and includes substances ranging from tranquilizers to heroin.

More specifically, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) found that the number of regular opium users has jumped 53 percent since the last such survey was done five years ago. At the same time, the number of heroin users has increased by 140 percent.

Angela Me, the head of the UNODC's Statistics and Surveys Section which prepared the report, says one of the main reasons for the jumps appears to be the increased availability of opium and heroin on the Afghan market and accompanying drops in prices.

That comes as Afghanistan's poppy fields have grown more productive in recent years and, increasingly, the laboratory refining of their output into opium and heroin now takes place within Afghanistan itself.

Southern Shift

Since 2001, Me notes, poppy production has largely shifted south from its traditional centers in the northeast of the country in provinces like Nangahar and Badakshan.

Today, she says some 90 percent of poppy cultivation is in southern provinces such as Helmand and Kandahar. And there, in country's most productive agricultural areas, the poppy plant thrives.

"The productivity of the opium fields has increased and we have seen, particularly in the last couple of years, really a massive increase in the density of the plants, in the size of the capsule, and that leads to producing more opium per hectare," Me says.

She says that in the southern provinces the use of irrigation and fertilizers is more common than in the north, adding to the success of the poppy's cultivation.

The UNODC recently reported that opium output nationwide was down by 10 percent in 2009 to 6,900 tons, but yield rose 15 percent because farmers extracted more opium per bulb.

The increase in yield has helped offset both civilian and military efforts to reduce the number of poppy fields in the south. The civilian efforts focus on persuading farmers to switch to food crops while the military efforts, like the one in Marjah earlier this year, target some of the fields under Taliban control.

Drug-control authorities hope that the number of poppy fields will be more dramatically reduced by a fungus that has hit poppy plants in the region over the past two months.

Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UNODC, has said Afghanistan's 2010 opium output could fall by up to 25 percent thanks to the disease, which by some estimates has infected about half of the total poppy crop.

But eradicating poppy cultivation is a long-term and uncertain prospect in Afghanistan, where poppies and the refinement of their sap into illicit opium and heroin is worth billions of dollars. Corruption, the usefulness of poppies as a cash crop to both warlords and insurgents, and the lack of economic alternatives all complicate the effort.

Numbing The Pain

In the meantime, the sheer volume of cheap drugs in the country makes it possible for ever more people to turn to them.

Me says that worldwide people in stressful situations such as wars and natural disasters are tempted to dull the pain of losing their loved ones or livelihoods by "self-medicating" with narcotics, tranquilizers, or alcohol. Afghanistan, which has seen three decades of continual strife, is particularly prone to that syndrome.
Opium cultivation is lucrative for Afghan farmers

Me says the archetypal male Afghan drug user is about 28 years old, has three children, is married but no longer lives with his wife, and is poor. He sells his assets, borrows, or sometimes steals to fund his habit and is trapped in an ever deepening cycle of depression.

The archetypal woman addict is more likely to be widowed or divorced and more than twice as likely as the man to not have a job.

There is a difference in the type of drugs men and women predominantly us, Me says. "Women use more tranquilizers, men use more heroin and those kinds of heavy drugs," Me says.

The average drug user begins his or her habit in Afghanistan, but a sizable number are refugees who began their habit in Iran or Pakistan before returning home. Among opium and heroin users, 40 percent first started using the substances in Iran, the county which the UNODC says has the highest rate of opiate addiction in the world.

The UN report found that drug addiction is spreading equally in rural and urban areas and that addicts in both settings lack facilities for treatment and recovery. It says that Afghanistan has 40 rehabilitation clinics but that around 700,000 Afghans have no access to drug treatment at all.