Afghanistan’s coming up poppies

Afghanistan is on the verge of becoming a ”narcotic state” with its biggest annual crop of opium since the overthrow of the Taliban, the United Nations drug control board warned last week.

The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) reports that the opium crop in Afghanistan reached a bumper 4 200 tonnes, up 800 tonnes on the previous year.

The increase is a blow to British Prime Minister Tony Blair who told his Labour Party conference in 2000 that the war against the Taliban was an opportunity to eradicate the poppy harvest, which is the source of three-quarters of all the world’s heroin.

The INCB report says that Britain has the highest heroin seizure rate in Europe and the third-highest number of heroin addicts.

Hamid Ghodse, the INCB’s president, said the British-led attempt to persuade Afghan farmers to grow other cash crops had failed. In 2003 farmers grew 3 600 tonnes of opium poppies in 17 of the 28 districts of Afghanistan. Now it has spread to all 28 districts, with the area under cultivation increasing last year from 80 000ha to 130 000ha.

The INCB said this compared with only 165 tonnes grown during the brutally enforced ban by the Taliban on opium production.

”The Afghanistan government needs to do something very serious, very quickly,” said Ghodse. ”If it is not going to be a narcotics state, which is a risk, then Afghanistan needs to do very urgent action in eradication and alternative development.”

Although opium prices fell considerably between 2003 and 2004 they remain higher than $100 a kg — far higher than any other cash crop — and a crucial source of finance for the private armies of the drug warlords in Afghanistan.

The crop eradication programme is supported by a British-led international consortium, and through negotiation tries to persuade farmers to grow alternative crops. But it is now believed to be under pressure from the United States administration, which wants to adopt a forced crop eradication programme similar to that seen in Colombia in the past five years.

The UN report also warns of an alarming spread in HIV/Aids among injecting drug users in Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Europe with an estimated four million people now believed to be infected.

Britain’s former deputy drug tsar Mike Trace said on Tuesday that there would be an alarming US-led attempt next week at the UN’s annual commission on narcotic drugs meeting in Vienna to rule out the use of needle exchange and other programmes to deal with the growing epidemic.

Needle exchange schemes have been used in Britain since the 1980s to ensure one of the lowest rates of HIV infection among heroin injectors in Europe. Trace, now a spokesperson for the International Drug Policy Consortium, said governments that provided practical help, such as free access to clean syringes, could achieve significant reductions in the level of HIV infections.

But he said the US was consciously trying to tie aid to ”moral lines in the sand” and would not endorse needle exchanges or heroin substitution programmes.

Britain and the rest of the European Union are expected to criticise the move in Vienna next week but a vote to withdraw support from needle exchange programmes would send a damaging signal to the governments of the former Soviet Union. — Â

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