Middle East Times, April 20, 2008
Afghan drugs and regional addiction rates
Globally, the rate of heroin addiction stands at about 0.3 percent for people between the ages of 15 to 64, the most commonly used sampling group. It is almost five times that in Afghanistan (1.4 percent).
By James Emery
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime World Drug Report includes a section on the annual prevalence of abuse for opiates, cannabis, and other drugs as a percentage of the population aged 15 to 64 for each respective country monitored. These rates reflect the percentage of people who used the drug in the 12-month period prior to the survey. Morphine use is typically very small and included in the number of heroin users.
During the previous year, an estimated 434,000 Afghans used hashish, 130,000 used opium and 41,000 used heroin, according to the UNODC. Some agencies report higher numbers, but this may be due to their failure to adjust the population base. While the population of Afghanistan is officially listed as 31.8 million, the UNODC figures are based on the figure of 23.8 million people who currently live in Afghanistan. The other 8 million, including refugees in Pakistan and Iran, live outside of Afghanistan.
Much of the drug problem in Afghanistan today can be traced to the refugee camps in Pakistan. Some refugees took up the habit of smoking opium or heroin while in Pakistan and upon returning to Afghanistan continued the habit and began cultivating opium to feed it. Thousands of Afghan refugees were smoking hashish while in Pakistan, but this was a habit most of them had initially acquired in Afghanistan. Some Afghans in Iran have had similar experiences, acquiring heroin and opium habits that followed them back into Afghanistan.
A flood of Taliban heroin swept through the Islamic countries of Asia and the Middle East during the last 10 years. Additionally, Afghan opium and hashish is being distributed regionally in Pakistan, Iran, and the Central Asian Republics. Over 10 million Muslims in Asia and the Middle East have used Afghan drugs, leading to the economic and social ruin of millions of families.
Pakistan, the country most responsible for the origin and resurgence of the Taliban, has been flooded with drugs, creating a surge in addiction rates during the last 12 years. According to the UNODC, 640,000 Pakistanis used opiates in the last year, of which 515,000 used heroin and 125,000 used opium. It's estimated that about 10 percent to 15 percent of Pakistani heroin addicts inject the drug, the rest smoke or inhale it. As with most countries in this region, some addicts use heroin and opium. A 2004 survey out of Karachi found that 20 percent of injection drug users were HIV positive.
In addition to opiate abusers, there are also 3,564,000 Pakistanis who've used hashish, most of which is coming from Afghanistan. Several years ago, it was widely reported that Pakistan had 3 million heroin addicts, but this exaggerated number had originated from surveys that lacked anthropological methodology and statistical safeguards.
In recent years, some drug researchers and reporters claimed that Iran has over 3 million people using heroin or opiates. I believe this is another case of flawed methodology and careless reporting that lumps opiate and cannabis users together.
During the last year an estimated 371,000 Iranians used heroin, 928,000 used opium, and 1.9 million used hashish. Clearly, there are over 3 million Iranians who have used drugs during the previous 12 months, but only about 1.3 million of these used opiates, and most of that is opium, not heroin.
The exact numbers are unknown because the UNODC has not been active in Iran since 1999. For years, Iranian officials were said to be artificially raising and lowering their drug usage figures to reflect improvements that didn't exist. Apparently, they're at it again. Recent reports released by Iranian government agencies have shown sudden and dramatic decreases in the number of drug abusers.
These figures have been dismissed by the international community as being propaganda meant to show that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is doing a good job. As in years past, the large decrease in addicts is only on paper; it has nothing to do with the real numbers. According to sources involved in the drug rehabilitation centers operating in Iran, there has been no decrease in the number of addicts seeking treatment. Furthermore, sources state that unemployment rates are significantly higher than reported by the Iranian government and that the drug epidemic is causing a breakdown in social mores as addicts become dealers, thieves, or pimps to support their habit.
The misery and despair of addicts and their families is another facet of the drug trade. Addiction rates have also increased in the Central Asian Republics and the Islamic countries of Asia and the Middle East. In Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan, up to 90 percent of drug addicts are HIV positive and 90 percent of new HIV cases are coming from drug addiction. Substantial increases in crime and corruption have followed the path of Afghan opiates. Transit countries showed a significant increase in heroin usage at the same time it was declining in Europe.
Globally, the rate of heroin addiction stands at about 0.3 percent for people between the ages of 15 to 64, the most commonly used sampling group. It is almost five times that in Afghanistan (1.4 percent) and more than twice the average in Pakistan (0.7 percent) and the Central Asian Republics (Turkmenistan 0.5 percent, Uzbekistan 0.8 percent, Tajikistan 0.5 percent, Kyrgyzstan, 0.8 percent, and Kazakhstan 1.0 percent).
Iran is believed to have an opiate addiction rate of 2.8 percent, nine times the global average. In 1975, prior to the Islamic Revolution, Iran only had 30,000 known heroin users. Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Bangladesh, and other Islamic countries have also seen an increase in heroin addiction and the numerous social, medical, legal, and economic problems that accompany it. Thanks to the Taliban, the vast amount of Afghan heroin flowing into Muslim countries has significantly lowered the price, making it affordable to the middle and lower classes.
The Islamic world was unprepared for the devastating effects of opiate addiction. They are further hindered by cultural norms that prevent many addicts from seeking help, especially women, who are unable to obtain treatment without the permission of their husband or other male guardian. Programs to combat the drug trade in Afghanistan and other countries should include extensive prevention, education, outreach, and rehabilitation services.
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