Afghan Opium Fuels Regional Drug Crisis

The Afghan government's pledge to wean farmers off their lucrative poppy crops rings hollow as the UN predicts a huge leap in production.

Afghan Opium Fuels Regional Drug Crisis

The Afghan government's pledge to wean farmers off their lucrative poppy crops rings hollow as the UN predicts a huge leap in production.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

Day and night, drug addicts in Peshawar gather beside a railway bridge - painted with the slogan "Keep your city clear" - feeding their Afghan heroin habit. The price is low. Heroin here sells for only 100 rupees (1.66 US dollars) a gram.

While the West sees the drugs flowing from Afghanistan as a threat to society in the US, France or Britain, the problems that this trade creates are felt much closer to the source of production.

The poppy harvest in Afghanistan dropped in the last year of Taleban rule but has risen since the movement was driven from power. This year UN drug experts believe the harvest will yield 1,900 to 2,700 tonnes of opium, the raw material for heroin, marking a return to the levels of the late 1990s.

The Pakistan government and groups working with addicts estimate there are now almost 2 million heroin addicts in Pakistan, including Afghan refugees in the teeming camps.

Most addicts in the frontier city of Peshawar live on the roadside and wear torn, dirty clothes. Their hair is long and filthy and their bodies often yellow from the hepatitis that runs rampant among the addicts. Many beg on the streets and turn to lives of crime.

Although Pakistan imposes strong penalties against drug trafficking, police pay little attention to the addicts and their dealers.

"Once my son was suffering from a fever and I was given money to treat him," said Shah Zaman, a 30-year-old addict. "Instead of taking him to the doctor, I bought some heroin and went back home." Zaman's family said he lived mostly from stealing, or by forcibly taking money from his wife.

Addicts use silver foil from cigarette packets for their habit. They burn off the white paper backing, spread the heroin on top of the foil and hold a

match to it. As the drug turns into a dark goo, they inhale the smoke through

a small straw.

While heroin sells in Peshawar for 100 rupees a gram, the price drops by half in the designated Tribal Areas of Pakistan, along the border with Afghanistan. The authorities exercise little control over the region. Many addicts go there by bus to save the 50 rupees.

Dr Parveen Azam Khan, director of the DOST welfare foundation in the Hayatabad district of Peshawar, says it is impossible to estimate the exact number of addicts in the city, which has sprawled uncontrollably over the countryside since Afghan refugees began arriving after the 1979 Soviet invasion.

Khan blames the increase in numbers of addicts on the political and economic turmoil in the region over the past 20 years, as war tore apart Afghanistan and Pakistan sank into economic chaos. While poverty has worsened, the illegal production, processing and marketing of drugs has soared.

Rahmat Bibi, a 36-year-old Pakistani, fell into the habit while living in a small village where there was no medical clinic. "I was eating opium to cure my headaches," she said. "Gradually I began to take heroin and became addicted."

Shahid Khan traced his addiction back to a failed romance. "At 25 I fell in love with a girl in the neighborhood," he said. "I asked my family to arrange a marriage but they refused and arranged my marriage to another girl. I dropped out and became a drug addict."

Pakistan virtually wiped out poppy cultivation on its own territory in the 1990s. Recently, Afghanistan has pledged to follow suit. The head of the interim government, Hamid Karzai, has ordered farmers to destroy their crops. "From any perspective - from the perspective of religion, national interest, or agriculture, Afghanistan must end poppy production," he said.

But as the head of a poor country that is struggling to reunite itself after two decades of war, he is in no position to impose his will on farmers far from Kabul.

The interim government wants international help to provide a realistic alternative to poppy growing. The United Nations would like to help wean farmers off their lucrative poppy crops. It hopes to prevent the renewal of cultivation, processing and smuggling of opium and heroin.

In spite of that, the UN Drug Control Programme predicts large-scale production of opium and heroin will resume this year. For the addicts on the streets of Peshawar, it seems there will be no shortage of drugs.

Fazal Malik is an Afghan journalist based in Peshawar

Pakistan, Afghanistan
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