01 March 2007

Good and bad news from the poppy fields

By Bronwen Maddox
The Times, 01 March 2007

The good news is that the deluge of opium pouring out of Afghanistan’s poppy fields is not yet affecting the trade on British streets. At least, it has not yet made heroin cheaper, even though 90 per cent of the drug in Britain (and most of Europe) comes from Afghanistan.

The bad news is that the drug-control situation there is “deteriorating rapidly”, according to this year’s survey from the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), the agency that monitors compliance with United Nations conventions on the control of illegal drugs.

Afghanistan cannot delude itself that it is merely exporting the stuff; one million Afghans take heroin or opiates, including 60,000 children under 15. “We have told [President] Karzai,” said Hamid Ghodse, one of the 13 members of the board.

Each year, in a report long on details and light on recommendations to governments, the board produces an extraordinary snapshot of the illegal drugs sloshing around the globe, from slimming pills to heroin — a tally of who is making them and who is taking them. For the past three years Afghanistan has been an extraordinary new eruption on this map, pouring out heroin ever faster, until now it has the undisputed position as the world’s prime factory.

The INCB is hardly the first to point out that this narco-trade undermines international efforts to build Afghanistan into a normal country. Drugs make up a third of the economy, it says — a modest estimate (and for all the attention that the poppies get, cannabis also easily grows wild there, it says).

The Taleban banned the crop (although there were some signs that, had their regime persisted, they may have restarted it). When they fell, the resurgence of poppy growing rapidly put power and cash in the hands of the warlords in the south and west.

Afghanistan’s neighbours bear the brunt of this torrent, particularly Iran, where the number of addicts is rising sharply, and where the cost of trying to shut the border takes a heavy toll in military lives each year.

Even so, there is little sign that the trade is impeded, British officials say; the traffickers continue to race along the dusty mountain roads in short convoys of the latest and most expensive 4x4 vehicles. What is new, however, the board cautions, is the sign of a resurgence of poppy-growing in Pakistan, if not back to the heights of the 1990s. There is much more evidence of the crop being traded with China, along the northern road through the Himalayas, or by air.

Central Asia and some former Soviet bloc countries are also mopping up the trade, and Europe, including Britain, continues to get 90 per cent of its heroin from Afghanistan. But Professor Ghodse said that so far, the surge in production had yielded little effect on the price, right along the supply chain. Of course, that may come later as the latest harvest feeds through.

It is not all bad news. The three success stories of opium eradication still stand there proudly amid the disasters: Burma, Laos and Vietnam. The board reported a continued fall in opium poppy growing in almost all countries in East and South-East Asia.

That has followed determined government efforts to penalise the growing of the crop, and in Vietnam’s case, rapid economic development offering many other jobs. It has not meant that use of all illegal drugs has fallen at all; amphetamine use has spread in the region.

The board also found a sharp drop in coca cultivation in South America, compared with 2000, although in places the figure has risen. It attributes this to vigorous government eradication policies. But it is alarmed at Bolivian plans to legalise the use of coca leaves for many products, and at the pressure on the new Peruvian Government from coca growers to stop ripping up the plants.

The board shies away from stern recommendations, but it does argue the case that governments have had some success in stopping illegal crops being grown, when they have tried hard.


Drugs report: the makers and takers

- In Afghanistan in 2006, the area of poppy-farming rose to a record 165,000 hectares, a jump of 59 per cent from 2005 and more than twice the figure for 2003

- Only 6 of the country’s 34 provinces are free from illicit poppy cultivation. “The drug control situation is deteriorating.”

- A third of the Afghan economy comes from opium, and this is undermining political progress Farming of opium poppies in Pakistan is rising sharply, although it has not yet reached the heights of the early 1990s

- One new trend is the smuggling of heroin from Pakistan into China

- Afghanistan’s neighbours are experiencing soaring rates of drug abuse. Iran has the world’s highest rates of opiate abuse at 2.8 per cent of the adult population; Pakistan has 0.8 per cent In Iran, seizure of Afghan opiates increased to 350 tons in 2005, showing the steep rise in smuggling

- Afghans are not just exporting their opium — they are using it. The first national survey, in 2005, found one million drug users, 60,000 of them aged under 15

- Much of this new flood of drugs has ended up in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. But it has not yet brought down the price of heroin in Britain

Citation: Bronwen Maddox. "Good and bad news from the poppy fields," The Times, 01 March 2007.
Original URL: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/bronwen_maddox/article1454569.ece