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Prescription Drug Abuse on the Rise

Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 23 2011 (IPS) - Some 13 million people across Europe, Russia, and other parts of the world remain largely dependent on Afghanistan’s poppy production to fuel their addiction to heroin, according to a new U.N. report on global use of illicit drugs.

“Yes, Afghanistan is on top of the list,” Thomas Pietschmann, a researcher at the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), told IPS.

Last year, more than 210 million people around the world used illegal substances such as heroin, cocaine and cannabis, as well as prescription opioid drugs and new synthetic drugs, the report said. But while global markets for cocaine, heroin and cannabis declined or remained stable, the production and abuse of prescription drugs rose.

“The gains we have witnessed in the traditional drugs markets are being offset by a fashion for synthetic ‘designer drugs’ mimicking illegal substances,” said UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov.

On Thursday, Pietschmann and colleagues launched the latest annual U.N. report on drugs and crime, which notes that Afghanistan remains the leading supplier of heroin in the world market for narcotic drugs.

The 313-page report points out that although there was sharp decline in opium production and a “modest” reduction in coca cultivation, the amount of heroin and cocaine produced and sold last year was still “significant”.

The report’s authors say the area under poppy cultivation in Afghanistan may have “remained stable” in 2011, but add that this trend was unlikely to continue.

Afghanistan continues to be the world’s major supplier of heroin, despite actions taken by the Western-backed government in Kabul to crack down on the production of poppy and a blight that wiped out much of the opium harvest there.

In response to an IPS question about how the world community can assist poppy growers in Afghanistan to transition to other means of livelihood, Fedotov suggested the government in Kabul needed to take drastic steps.

“[There is] the lack of rule of law and corruption,” he said, adding that these two major factors were chiefly responsible for continuing growth of poppy crops in Afghanistan.

Experts say that in addition to the illicit cultivation, manufacturing and export of heroin, Afghanistan faces the problem of drug abuse at the domestic level.

A recent nationwide survey found that there were at least one million drug addicts in that war-torn Central Asian country. Those statistics also include some 60,000 children under the age of 15.

Fedotov noted that much of the poppy crop in Afghanistan is being produced on private lands owned and controlled by feudal landlords who exercise full control over poor peasants’ work-life.

About the use and production of cocaine, the report’s authors said they noted that the use of cocaine produced in South American countries declined last year and that drug cartels were losing profits.

Although the U.S. cocaine market has witnessed massive declines in recent years, the report said, it continues to be largest cocaine market, with an estimated consumption of 157 tonnes of cocaine in 2009.

When asked about the calls by some rights groups in the United States and Europe to legalise drugs like cocaine and heroin, whose users often face lengthy prison sentences for nonviolent crimes, both officials from the U.N. drug office were tight-lipped.

Fedotov said, however, that it was “up to the [U.N.] member states to decide”.

Shortly before the launch of the study, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told a select gathering in New York that drug trafficking had transformed in recent years into a “major threat” to the “security and health of people and regions”.

In his view, the 61 billion-dollar annual market for Afghan opiates was funding “insurgency, international terrorism, and wider destabilisation”.

In West Africa, he said, the 85-billion-dollar global cocaine trade was exacerbating addiction and money laundering, while fueling political instability and threats to security.

“Every one billion dollars of pure cocaine trafficked through West Africa earns more than 10 times as much when sold on the streets on Europe,” he added in a statement.

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