Afghanistan, the world's biggest exporter of raw opium for heroin, now also rivals Iran for the highest rates of addiction to the contraband drugs, the United Nations said.
Some 2.7% of the ravaged country's adult population regularly uses opiates, but overall figures are probably higher given under-reported addiction among women and children, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in a study.
The findings, which also showed that Afghan drug abuse has been rising steeply, will make grim reading for Western donor nations as they scramble to bring stability ahead of planned NATO-led troop withdrawals next year.
"The human face of Afghanistan's drug problem is not only seen on the streets of Moscow, London or Paris. It is in the eyes of its own citizens, dependent on a daily dose of opium and heroin above all," UNODC director Antonio Maria Costa said.
Afghanistan on par with Iran
"In Afghanistan the growth of addiction to narcotics has followed the same hyperbolic pattern of opium production."
The findings put Afghanistan on a par with Iran, which in the 2009 UNODC World Drug Report topped the opiate addiction rankings with rates ranging from 1.5% to 3.2% of population. Russia followed closely with a rate of 1.64% of population.
The global average is 0.3% of population.
Three decades of conflict trampled on Afghans' traditional agriculture. Many farmers and warlords turned to poppies as an easily cultivated, lucrative cash crop. More than 90 percent of the world's illegal opium and heroin originates in Afghanistan. NATO-led forces worry that the Taliban insurgency, now at its most potent since the Islamist group was toppled in the 2001, is bankrolled by opiate trafficking.
Widows and divorcees
The UNODC found that the vagaries of war had also impacted on domestic drug use, with a significant number of addicts picking up the habit while refugees in Iran and Pakistan. Widows and divorcees are among Afghan women likeliest to become addicted.
Since its previous study, in 2004, the number of opium users in Afghanistan, whose total population is estimated at around 30 million, had gone up 53% and the number of heroin users 140%, the UNODC said.
As many as 50% of opiate users in the rural north and south had introduced their children to the drugs, it said, noting a phenomenon of deliberate underage addiction that experts say is unique to Afghanistan. The country's 40 rehabilitation clinics and outpatient care system are insufficient to deal with the 90% of surveyed addicts who indicated a desire to kick the habit, the UNODC said.
"This leaves around 700 000 Afghans with no access to drug treatment - and another generation on the way," the study said. - (Reuters Health, June 2010)