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AFGHANISTAN: Opium production, addiction soar in Helmand Province

HELMAND, 4 September 2007 (IRIN) - Nazar Mohammad was brought to Wadan Rehabilitation Centre (WRC) - a drug addiction treatment and counselling facility in southern Afghanistan - by his father three days ago. The 16-year-old is addicted to opium, which his father cultivates on their farm in southern Helmand Province.

The teenager was first exposed to opium when his father asked him to lance poppies and collect raw opium in their fields in Baghran District. A friend encouraged Mohammad to swallow a small piece of opium and “enjoy”.

Days after the labour on their vast poppy fields, his father stored the opium in their house.

While schools were closed Mohammad and his young friends in the impoverished village did not have other amusements, so started to consume opium. Stealing small amounts from his father’s sizable opium harvest was always an easy task for him.

“Months after I sold all our opium, I discovered that my son was addicted to it,” said Mohammad’s father, Haji Mohammad.

Indications of growing addiction in Helmand

Nobody knows for sure how many addicts are in Helmand, but local experts say there has been an unprecedented increase in the number of drug abusers seeking treatment.

“Every week over 15 addicts come to our hospital for treatment,” said Rawzatullah Zia, the head of WRC, adding that in 2006 that figure was much less.

Provincial health officials estimate there are 65,000-70,000 drug abusers in Helmand Province, most of them young men.

Apart from the WRC, there is one other addiction treatment and rehabilitation centre in Lashkargah, the provincial capital, where staff are also overwhelmed by the growing demand for treatment.

“We have 10 beds but we always accommodate over 15 addicts at a time,” Rahmatullah Mohammadi, the head of Mohammadi private hospital, told IRIN on 3 September.

“I think we need more hospitals to treat and rehabilitate addicts in Helmand Province,” said Mohammadi.

Production soars in Helmand

Afghanistan, which produced 8,200 metric tones of opium in 2007, is the largest supplier of opiates and heroin in the world, the UN reported on 27 August.

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Helmand alone produces about 50 percent of the country’s total opium harvest.

“Cultivation in Helmand Province more than tripled between 2002 and 2007, bringing the area under opium poppy cultivation in 2007 to nearly equal the area cultivated in Afghanistan in 2005 (104,000 hectares),” according to the UNODC 2007 survey on opium production in Afghanistan.

Widespread availability of opium and other narcotics in the province has boosted vulnerability to addiction, experts say. “Opium is the biggest commodity and is widely available everywhere in Helmand Province,” Jahanzeb Khan, a UNODC drug demand reduction specialist in Kabul, told IRIN.

Thousands of young men and teenagers who work the poppy fields with no protection are particularly exposed to opium addiction.

In remote villages where access to health services is limited, locals consume opium as a “pain-killer” due to ignorance about the harm it does, Afghan counter narcotics officials say.

Insecurity restricting access

Officials in Afghanistan’s Ministry of Counter Narcotics (MCN) acknowledge there is increasing opium addiction in Helmand but say insecurity has restricted efforts to effectively tackle the problem.

Insecurity has impeded public awareness campaigns about the harms of opium and the promotion of alternative livelihoods, said Zalmai Afzali, a spokesman of MCN.

UN officials say the UN does not provide any assistance to help reduce drug addiction or demand in Helmand, but relies on UK counter-narcotics efforts in the province, said Jahanzeb Khan of UNODC.



Copyright © IRIN 2007
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
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