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AFGHANISTAN: On the Road to Becoming a Narco State

Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 7 2007 (IPS) - Although fully backed by U.S. military might and support from other Western powers, the government in Kabul has failed to change Afghanistan’s status as the world’s leading illicit producer of opium, according to U.N. experts who monitor the worldwide trade in narcotic drugs.

“The illicit poppy (opium) cultivation in Afghanistan has not been contained but has instead reached a record high level,” Dr. Philip Emafo told a news conference at U.N. headquarters to launch the International Narcotic Control Board’s (INCB) annual report for 2006.

Describing the drug control situation in Afghanistan as “rapidly deteriorating”, Emafo, who is president of the INCB, said despite local and international efforts, one-third of the Afghan economy remains dependent on the production of opium.

Mixed with certain chemicals, opium is used to manufacture heroin, a powerful and highly addictive drug that remains popular with millions of users around the world despite years of international efforts to control illicit trafficking in narcotics.

“There is a need for drastic action in Afghanistan,” Emafo told reporters, adding that unless the government takes swift measures to address the problem of corruption, there will be no progress in economic and social development.

According to the report, in addition to the illicit cultivation, manufacture and export of narcotics, Afghanistan is also facing the problem of drug abuse at the domestic level. A recent nationwide survey found that there were at least one million drug addicts in the country, including 60,000 children under the age of 15.

While urging the Afghan government to redouble its efforts to root out corruption linked to the illegal drug trade, the report’s authors said the international community, particularly donor nations, has a duty to provide greater assistance.

According to them, the absence of adequate drug control laws and mechanisms in Afghanistan is also responsible for the proliferation of unregulated retail outlets selling controlled substances, many of which have been smuggled into the country.

Emafo said that while the Afghan government needs to create alternative income sources for poppy growers, it must also take measures to control the supply of chemicals that are used to convert opium into heroin.

Asked if Western pharmaceutical companies are responsible for exporting those chemicals, he told IPS: “We have been looking into it, but we don’t know who are the suppliers.”

In addition to Afghanistan, Emafo and other INCB officials said they were “equally worried” about the large-scale trafficking in cocaine in Africa, adding that drug traffickers have expanded their networks to use the continent as a transit area to smuggle cocaine from South America for shipment to Europe and North America.

The countries of Western Europe, according to the report, have become the second largest illicit drug market in the world. According to the World Drug Report 2006 of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, Western and Central Europe account for about 25 percent of all cocaine consumption in the world.

Researchers note, however, that cannabis still remains the preferred drug in most of Europe, particularly Denmark, the Czech Republic, France and Britain. Europe also continues to be one of the main illicit markets for stimulants like MDMA, popularly known as “ecstasy”.

Regarding the abuse of prescription drugs, the INCB findings show that abuse has risen to an alarming level.

“It has already surpassed abuse of traditional drugs such as heroin and cocaine in some parts of the world,” the report said, adding that medicines containing psychoneuratic substances have already become the drugs of “first choice in many cases.”

For example, in the United States, the abuse of prescription drugs, including pain killers, stimulants, sedatives and tranquilisers, has surpassed the abuse levels of practically all illicit drugs, with the exception of cannabis.

According to INCB, in the United States, the number of people who abused controlled prescription drugs nearly doubled from 7.8 million to 15.1 million from 1992 to 2003, and there were strong indications that in some parts of Africa, South Asia and Europe, drug abusers are increasingly becoming dependent on prescribed sedatives and tranquilisers.

In Nigeria, for instance, pentazocine, an analgesic, is the second most common drug injected. Buprenorphine, a drug prescribed as a substitution treatment for narcotic dependency, is the main drug of injection in most areas of India, which is trafficked and abused in tablet form in France and Scandinavian countries.

“The demand for these drugs,” Emafo said, “is so high that it has given rise to a new problem – that of counterfeit products.” Strong demand in Scandinavia for flunitrazepam, a sedative, is increasingly met by illicitly manufactured counterfeit preparations, he added.

Similarly, the demand of the illicit market in North America for oxycontin has also led to widespread distribution of counterfeit products containing illicitly manufactured fentanyl.

The report’s authors warned that the abuse of prescription drugs can be lethal, and the medical community has already seen a number of overdose deaths from fentanyl and oxycodone.

The report urged governments to alert their law-enforcement officials to the rising trafficking and abuse of pharmaceutical products containing controlled substances. It also wants to create global public awareness programmes about the consequences of the abuse of such drugs.

“Most governments are not aware to what extent drugs are being diverted and abused,” said Emafo. “In addition, what abusers do not realise is that abuse of prescription drugs can be more risky than the illicitly manufactured drugs (such as heroin and cocaine.”

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