April 6, 2016
The revelation that the number of opium-addicted Afghan adults and children has reached new highs is a dramatic consequence of the war in that country. It painfully illustrates how the aggression led by the United States can doom generations of children to a miserable life. A U.S. funded study released in April of 2015, found that one in every nine Afghans -including women and children- uses illegal drugs.
Over the last few years, donors have disbursed hundreds of millions of dollars to control Afghanistan's drug problem. However, most of those funds have been spent on poppy eradication and much less attention has been paid to the rising addiction problem. The U.S. has spent over $7 billion in taxpayer funds to tackle this issue with no positive results.
Although the U.S. government has paid high sums of money to the poppy farmers to switch to legitimate crops such as wheat, poppy cultivation has proven to be too lucrative to stop. In 2014, opium cultivation reached record levels: more than 553,000 acres, an increase of seven percent from the year before, according to estimates of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC).
The export value of opium trade is about $4 billion. A quarter of that amount is being earned by opium farmers and the rest is going to district officials, drug traffickers, insurgents, warlords and, according to this agency. 380 tons of heroin and morphine are produced annually, which is approximately 85% of the global supply.
The number of drug users in the country has increased from 920,000 in 2005 to over 1.6 million in recent years, according to reports from the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Zalmai Afzali, the spokesman for the Ministry of Counter-Narcotics (MCN) in Afghanistan estimates that quarter of those users are women and children. Afzali also said that, if current trends continue, Afghanistan could become the world's top drug-using nation per capita.
A study by a group of researchers hired by the U.S. State Department found staggering levels of opium in Afghan children, some as young as 14 months old, who had been passively exposed by adult drug users in their homes. In 25 percent of homes where adult addicts lived, children tested showed signs of significant drug exposure, according to the researchers.
The results of the study should sound an alarm, since not only were opium products found in indoor air samples but also their concentrations were extremely high, posing a serious health risk to women and children's health.
The problem is compounded by the lack of education of many mothers, who give opium to their children when they are restless and want to calm them down, ignoring the dangers that such approach may provoke later in their children's lives.
According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) no other country in the world produces as much heroin, opium, and hashish as Afghanistan, a sad distinction for a country ravaged by war. This may explain why control efforts so far have been concentrated on poppy eradication and interdiction to stem exports with less attention paid to the rising domestic addiction problem, particularly in children.
Among the factors leading to increased levels of drug use among adults is the high unemployment rate throughout the country, the social upheaval provoked by this war and those that preceded it, and the return of refugees from Iran and Pakistan who became addicts while abroad. "There is a Coca-Cola effect between production of drugs and consumption and addiction; supply inevitably does create demand," said Jean-Luc Lemahieu, UNODC's Director, Division of Policy Analysis and Public Affairs.
Those who are injecting drugs face the additional risk of HIV infection through the sharing of contaminated syringes. "Drug addiction and HIV/AIDS are, together, Afghanistan's silent tsunami," declared Tariq Suliman, director of the Nejat's rehabilitation center to the U.N. Office for Humanitarian Affairs. There are about 95 treatment centers for addicts dispersed throughout the country but most are small, poorly staffed, and under-resourced.
According to UNDOC, "... Not only does drug production hold back Afghanistan's development and threaten its security. Drug addiction is harming Afghanistan's health and welfare. This is another reason to reduce the supply of drugs in Afghanistan. And it calls for much greater resources for drug prevention and treatment in Afghanistan, as part of mainstream health care and development programmes."
The United States and its allies which have conducted the war have the responsibility and the economic possibilities to rapidly expand and adequately fund and provide the human resources needed by the treatment and rehabilitation centers throughout the country. The high level of drug addiction in Afghanistan is one of the most tragic legacies of a disastrous and unnecessary war.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article "Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims."