Opium crisis in Afghanistan: officials and druglords prosper while citizens suffer

In 2012, the US Department of State published a research survey that attempted to determine the prevalence of drug use in Afghanistan in order to develop drug prevention and treatment programs. Over 5000 people were randomly selected in what represents 75% of the urban population, and were administered a survey and then a voluntary drug test.* The results found that among adults, the prevalence of drug usage was 7.5%, with almost twice as many male users as female users. Overwhelmingly, the most widely used drugs were opioids, comprising 46% of all drug usage. Additionally, a separate study conducted in rural areas found that 30% of adults tested positive for opioids.

Today, Afghanistan produces 75% of the world’s opium—in the last year alone, there was an 18% growth in heroin trade. This high prevalence of opium production and usage is only the tip of the iceberg of the problem involving state governments and drug traffickers. The opioid cultivators and users are often the ones exploited and prosecuted for problems initiated by others. There is a dire situation concerning opioids in Afghanistan, in which those in the government and the higher-ups in drug trafficking prosper, and the citizens of Afghanistan suffer.

Twelve years ago in 2001, the economy of Afghanistan collapsed, and Afghani workers were forced to find alternatives to their previous occupations. Widely, workers turned to opium production. Currently there is an unemployment rate of 40% in Afghanistan, and not only has this led to a greater production in opium in the country, but the number of drug users has increased as well. Afghani citizens have been interviewed, some despairingly saying that if they had a job, they wouldn’t have developed drug dependencies. Heroin has increasingly become more available on street corners throughout the nation, and the cost is only around £4 per gram. While often market dynamics work as a demand increasing the supply of a product, in the case of opioids in Afghanistan, the opposite has happened. The streets have been flooded with such an availability of drugs that the demand has followed.

Afghanistan’s proximity to Iran has exacerbated the dilemma. One of the greatest areas of problem is Herat, which is located close to the border of Iran. Many Afghani workers who lost their jobs in the economic collapse crossed into Iran for work, and came back hooked on the drug. One of the largest drug roads in Afghanistan stations in Herat, leading through Iran and from there into Turkey and other parts of Europe. There are also people who were forced to flee Afghanistan decades past to Iran and Pakistan, and are now returning home with drug dependencies.

Additionally, the government of Afghanistan has been entirely ineffectual in helping those who have been affected by drug use; on an official level, the government simply isn’t doing enough. The national budget sets aside a pitiful amount per year in order to help those with drug dependencies—an amount that averages to be £1.25 per user per year. The treatment facilities are understaffed of doctors and possess inadequate supplies. On top of there being a very long waitlist for treatment programs, the programs themselves are rudimentary, the entire “treatment” being that the people just go “cold turkey.” Many users leave before the first week is through.

However, the underside of this business is even more insidious than that. Many members of the government are covertly involved in the industry themselves. Drug traffickers bribe Afghani government officials to allow their market to continue, and some government members are even themselves involved in trafficking. Drug traffickers become rich while the impoverished opium growers are the people who are prosecuted and victimized by the government. Both the Taliban and government promote opium production, as the results benefit each. Outside of it all, the United States turns a blind eye to what it does not consider to be a primary concern. The nation of Afghanistan is caught in a destructive and perpetuating circle: instability in the country leads to opium production, which generates money for weapons and soldiers, which then creates an environment in which drug traffickers thrive and create more instability.

Foreign nations who claim to be working to help the people of Afghanistan must cease ignoring the problems with drug traffickers that they are helping to create, and change must be effected in the Afghani government itself. Focus must be returned to helping the people. Instead of penalizing the average citizens, action must be taken against the duplicitous government officials and the drug traffickers who exploit the people.

* It should be noted that complications arise when attempting to determine drug usage in a population—for example the selected sample population or the willingness of users to undergo a test—so these statistics should be taken as approximations.