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UN Says Afghan Opium Production Hits Record High

The United Nations says opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan surged this year to record levels.

In its annual report on drugs in Afghanistan, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said the 2013 harvest produced 5,500 metric tons of opium -- 49 percent higher than last year -- and more than the combined output of the rest of the world.

The UNODC report stated that the amount of land found to be growing opium poppies represents a 36 percent increase from the previous year.

The opium taken from the poppies is a main ingredient in several narcotics, including morphine and heroin.

Jean-Luc Lemahieu, the head of the UNODC's office in Afghanistan, summed up the report: said the problems associated with opium production are "like a virus festering within a body."

The report said the increased production is likely motivated by concerns among farmers about their future livelihoods following the planned withdrawal of NATO-led forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

Lemahieu said the planned withdrawal is likely to lead to even greater cultivation of opium poppies.

'Religious Tax'

The vast majority of Afghanistan's poppy cultivation takes place in the south and east, where Taliban insurgents have influence and are reportedly using the sale of opium and heroin to finance their insurgency.

A farmer in eastern Nangarhar Province told AP that insurgents charge a "religious tax" of one kilogram of opium for every 10 kilograms a farmer produces.

But Lemahieu said the increased harvest of opium poppies will also have a global impact: "Of the $68 billion profit made globally on Afghan opium [production], less than 10 percent stays in Afghanistan -- 90 percent [goes abroad]. Hence, we do have a shared responsibility."

Lemahieu pointed to one positive development. He said Afghan police are seizing a larger percentage of the opium that is being produced.

"The counternarcotics police of Afghanistan until recently had been seizing a mere 3 to 4 percent of the total domestic production [of opium]. Today, they do seize 11 to 12 percent," Lemahieu said.

But two Afghan provinces that were free of opium cultivation in 2012 are now growing it, as 17 of the country's 34 provinces are involved in the growth of the crop.

With reporting by AP and AFP