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Wednesday, 14 June, 2000, 14:14 GMT 15:14 UK
The Taleban's drug dividend
Opium poppies: A major source of foreign currency
By Kate Clark in Kabul

Each spring, huge areas of the south and east of Afghanistan are covered with red opium poppies.

Weeks later, after the flowers have seeded, farmers make holes in the seed heads and scrape off the white milky liquid. This is raw opium.

Some of it is processed into heroin and morphine base in small factories inside Afghanistan.

Some leaves the country unprocessed, destined for factories in Pakistan and Central Asia. From there, it gets smuggled to Europe.

poppy farmer
The most lucrative crop (picture: UNDCP)
Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium.

Last year, the United Nations Security Council introduced limited sanctions against the Taleban.

The Taleban's support for the Saudi militant, Osama Bin Laden was their main cause of concern. However, the resolution also said the Security Council was deeply disturbed by what it called the "significant rise in the illicit production of opium in Afghanistan".

In poverty-stricken Afghanistan, poppy is the most lucrative crop farmers can grow. It's ideally suited to the dry conditions here, needing less water than wheat.

It gives particularly good yields - higher than in Burma, the world's other big producer.

Drug taxes

Farmers this year have been selling raw opium for about $50 a kilogramme.

It's the responsibility of the West to prevent illegal consumption of drugs in their own societies

Najibullah Shams, Taleban anti-drugs official
By the time it gets to London as heroin, the price is likely to be more than 2,000 times higher.

The mark-up is huge, but the income which Afghan opium growers get is high by local standards.

The farmers pay taxes - providing the Taleban with one of their most important sources of revenue.

Opium is also one of Afghanistan's few sources of foreign currency.

The crop is so important that when the national currency collapsed in April, many people blamed it on a drought which had affected poppy production.

At the same time as presiding over record levels of drug production, the Taleban have introduced some of the toughest laws against drug consumption in the world.

High production, low consumption

Even cigarette smoking is discouraged.

The Taleban believe moral and Islamic traditions will protect Afghans from drugs

People who use drugs like heroin, alcohol and hashish are sentenced to prison.

The Taleban have been accused of hypocrisy for their "high production, low consumption" narcotics policy, but they say the problem is with western demand.

"It's the responsibility of the West to prevent illegal consumption of drugs in their own societies," says Dr Najibullah Shams, head of the Taleban's High Commission for the Struggle Against Drugs.

"They can use opium as a medicine, or as a narcotic. It's their choice."

This year, the Taleban announced they were cutting poppy production by one third and invited journalists to come and watch crops being cut and burned.

They say they would like to eliminate production, but as a poor country subject to sanctions, they say they need international support to carry out crop substitution schemes.

Islamic traditions

Though there are some areas which have a long tradition of opium consumption - such as Badakhshan in the north-east - overall, there is little evidence of widespread drug abuse.

We have suffered from a hundred calamities

Dr Tamasha, Kabul Drug Rehabilitation Unit
However, preliminary results of a United Nations survey suggest it is a growing problem.

The UN points to Pakistan, where increased production of opium and heroin brought addicts in its wake.

The Taleban are not worried. Dr Shams says that Afghans' moral and Islamic traditions will protect them.

On the other hand, the traumas of 20 years of war may make some people vulnerable.

One young man drying out in the only drug rehabilitation unit in Kabul said he became addicted after his brother was killed in a rocket attack.

Pain relief

"I just couldn't bear the grief," he says.

"I just wanted to forget. So I started taking heroin."

More grief: the 1998 earthquake
He was being supported by his family after he made the decision to give up the drug.

"It's not surprising that people take drugs," says Dr Tamasha, who makes heroic efforts at the rehabilitation unit - on a salary of $4 a month.

He says about a third of his patients have problems with heroin, the rest with medical drugs, including tranquillisers, sleeping tablets and anti-depressants.

"Some people have lost their jobs and can't see how to make a living. Or they take them to ease the physical pain of hard labour," he says.

"And many, many people have lost family in the war or they've become refugees or seen their city destroyed. We have suffered from a hundred calamities."

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