Cesar Chelala
A physician and writer

The New Face of Drug Addiction in Afghanistan

The high number of opium-addicted Afghan women and children is a dramatic consequence of the war in that country. It painfully illustrates how foreign intervention has doomed 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. For several 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 $8.62 billion in taxpayer funds on counter narcotic efforts.

Although the U.S. government has paid 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 over $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. The high drug revenue prolongs insecurity and fuels corruption in the country, already besieged by multiple problems.

According to the U.S. Government estimates, although poppy cultivation had decreased in 2019 compared to 2018, potential pure opium production had increased. 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. Very often, husbands addict their wives, and mothers addict children by using opium when they are pregnant, by exposing them to secondhand smoke and by using small amounts of opium to calm them down when they are agitated.

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.
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 the unrelenting war and those that preceded it, and the return of refugees from Iran and Pakistan who became addicts while abroad.

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 programs.”

The United States and its allies that have conducted the war have the responsibility and the economic possibilities to expand, 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. César Chelala is an international public health consultant and a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.

About the Author
César Chelala is a physician and writer born in Argentina and living in the U.S. He wrote for leading newspapers all over the world and for the main medical journals, among them The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Japan Times, The China Daily, The Moscow Times, The International Herald Tribune, Le Monde Diplomatique, Harvard International Review, The Journal of the American Medical Association, The Lancet, Annals of Internal Medicine, and The British Medical Journal. He is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and two national journalism awards from Argentina.
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