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Opium: Fighting the War on Drugs in Afghanistan

Beina Azadgoli, M.S., Sheila Pakdaman, M.S.

Published on May 26, 2013


In Afghanistan, opium production, addiction, and exportation have become an increasingly large problem. This topic has been reviewed extensively from a religious, social as well as political standpoint. This paper aims to analyze the current situation while considering the economic conditions of the country and the cultural influence on treatment programs. We hope to focus attention on the opium epidemic in Afghanistan as well as the current efforts and lack thereof in the country. As the nation that is responsible for 75% of the world's opium production, the circumstances in Afghanistan leave citizens highly susceptible to addiction and dependency. Therefore, a strategy that combines national and international law strengthening, with alternative crop production, would be most efficient to distribute money effectively. By understanding the beliefs and attitudes about opium addiction in Afghanistan and by assessing the current resources, we propose an efficient and culturally sensitive solution to the problem.


Aside from the political unrest in Afghanistan, the country is faced with yet another major issue: the production and use of opium. As opium production is the country's main source of income, the problem is permissively overlooked [1]. Prior to the fall of the Taliban, Afghani farmers would harvest agricultural crops and see a high return on investment. Since then however, there has been a drastic increase in the number of opium farms, as poppy production remains the most convenient and profitable means of making a living [2].

Of the nearly 30 million individuals who live in Afghanistan, approximately 99% practice Islam [3]. Despite the teachings of their religion, an estimated 1 million Afghani citizens are drug users [4]. However, this number is considered an underestimation as per the United Nations due to the fact that there is no reliable source of data collection in the country. Based on a study conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, about 67% of drug users in 18 refugee camps had reported no schooling whatsoever and 75% of them were illiterate. Furthermore, an estimated 69% of Afghanistan's total population is illiterate (including 57% of males and 80% of females) [3]. Moreover, only 3.3% of opium made is used by Afghani citizens themselves, as 90% of it is consumed by Europe and Russia, further increasing the epidemic. Once opium is processed into heroin, the problem of needle sharing and infectious diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis also arises. The United Nations office of Drugs and Crime predicts that the more opium is produced in Afghanistan, the more heroin overdoses will occur worldwide [2]. Although measures were taken in 2002 by the Afghani government to ban opium production, they proved to be unsuccessful as extreme poverty led farmers to continue the illegal cultivation of the crop. Furthermore, due to the lack of infrastructure, such as roads and irrigation, farmers are limited to growing drought-friendly plants such as opium, which can survive and thrive in dour conditions.

Religious Outlook

Historically, brewing alcohol from dates and grapes was popular among pre-Islamic communities in the Arabian Peninsula. The people were generally stricken by poverty, and thus, alcohol was used for its euphoric effects. Then, the prophet Mohamed, over the course of 23 years, communicated the Islamic message to his followers. His message had a strong emphasis on change, as the goal was to bring the people from a dark pagan life to the shining light of Islam. Initially, alcohol was singled out because it was the only habit-forming, addictive drug known to this community. Towards the beginning of the Islamic era, the drinking of wine was identified as an impending issue, and Islamic law began to preach that there was more sin than benefit in the use of wine. However, although this created awareness regarding the issue, the final decision whether to continue the use of alcohol or to abstain from its consumption was left to one's personal discretion. Eventually, alcohol became prohibited, and its use was considered a punishable offense. Despite the differences among Muslim countries, the practice of Islam is considered the most essential factor in maintaining a relatively low prevalence rate of alcoholism in the population of these countries compared to other parts of the world [6].

Despite Islam's clear stance on alcohol, there has been question regarding its position on the use of drugs. In Islamic nations, there are five major categories of drugs. These include opium and its derivatives, cannabis, khat, alcohol and synthetic drugs. With the exception of alcohol, there is no direct mention of any of these substances in the Koran, which has been a source of confusion for those who practice the religion. Nonetheless, Islamic law has agreed that whatever is capable of causing dependence should be regarded as harmful and should not be used by a devout Muslim. Prior to the establishment of Islam, however, opium was used for centuries as a means of pain relief and sleep induction. The earliest reference to the abuse of opium was in the 10th century A.D. [6].

A 2012 survey conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) showed that 45% of Afghani farmers did not cultivate opium because they believe it is prohibited by the government, and 18% believed it is against Islam, illustrating that they are unaware of the exact teachings of Islam [7].

Social Aspect

There is variation in the drug problem in different Islamic countries. For instance, in Egypt, for the sake of identifying with peer groups, satisfying curiosity, and alleviating psychological tension, individuals use cannabis commonly. On the other hand, individuals in Iran, Pakistan and most specifically, Afghanistan abuse opium. In general, opium has been viewed with social approval in these countries, similar to how western nations view the usage of alcohol consumption [7].

In Afghanistan, opium is used to relieve pain and respiratory problems as well as to ameliorate stress due to poverty. Traditionally, children under four years of age are given the drug as an analgesic and sedative. It is also used for cough suppression and for the purpose of silencing crying infants [8]. Since there is little or no access to healthcare facilities and drug treatment centers, as well as little external help from more developed nations, the reasons for opium usage in Afghanistan vary between the following 6 categories: medicinal purposes (24%), recreation (20%), pleasurable effects (19%), ease of availability (16%), peer pressure (11%) and curiosity (10%) [9].

Political and Economic Factors

Currently, Afghanistan is ranked as one of the ten poorest countries according to the United Nations Development Program even though their annual revenue has significantly increased since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Opium accounts for over 1/3 of the economy in Afghanistan. Of the world's opium supply, 75% comes from Afghanistan, 90% of which accounts for illegal opium [1]. Thus, if opium were to be eradicated, Afghanistan's economy would suffer tremendously.

In Afghanistan, opium maintains the economy by providing seasonal employment and guaranteeing market and high financial returns, which in turn gives citizens more incentive to work in this field [1]. In UNODC's 2012 survey, 13% of opium farmers stated that they cultivate in order to alleviate their poverty [7]. According to the United Nations, in 2003, the average family in Afghanistan made $300 dollars a year, while families involved in poppy cultivation earned $6,500. However, 98% opium farmers have stated that they will stop cultivation if an alternative means is given [2].

In regards to the economic impact of opium on the nation, the government plays a significant role. For instance, if an individual is caught with opium, government officials typically confiscate the supply and sell it themselves, weakening the people's faith in their justice system. Furthermore, 84% of drug users do not get arrested, which demonstrates the level of corruption that the nation encounters [1].

Initially, the attempt made by the World Bank to stop the production of opium was termed "The Counter Narcotics Measures Impact." This was a macro-economical approach that attempted to stop farmers from producing opium. However, this was found to be more detrimental than beneficial since the removal of the opium farms gave no resolution to the mass problem of addiction. Therefore, the World Bank initiated the use of an improved method that is to reduce opium in the economy over time, hoping to gradually decrease its availability. Other tactics that were considered included the idea of increasing the price of opium. However, this would be counterproductive in that it would only widen the poverty gap due to the fact that while the wealthy would still be able to afford the drugs, the poor, which comprise the major percentage of the population, would still need to satisfy their addiction at a higher price [10]. The issue with these tactics is that they all work to target the production and sale of opium, as opposed to focusing on treating the addicted civilians.

Treatment of Addiction

Of Afghanistan's 1 million drug users, at least 90% have no access to treatment. In the entire country, there are approximately three dozen treatment facilities, most of which have occupancy of only 20-40 in-patient beds. The wait to enlist in one of these treatment facilities can take up to 6 months. As a result, some of these centers allow approximately 20 individuals to receive outpatient treatment, which tends to be more ineffective than the treatment received by patients who receive treatment within the facility because it is less regulated [11]. Unfortunately, more treatment options are available for men due to the Islamic ideology, which disproves of men and women being treated in the same facility.

Currently, the nation's treatment programs are limited to abstinence-based counseling and treatment for acute withdrawal symptoms. The Ministry of Public Health in Afghanistan has not approved of drugs such as methadone and buprenorphine, which are typically used to counter withdrawal of opium in westernized nations [12].

One of the few treatment facilities that provides care for women and children is called Sanga Amaj. It was founded in 2007 in the capital city of Kabul. It contains 33 in-patient beds and consists of a 45-day minimum program that can last up to 90 days, which is preferred. The treatment entails group therapy sessions, medical treatment, exercise, religion classes and learning skills such as sewing and embroidery. However, there is a stigma against this issue because culturally, it is considered unacceptable for women to leave the home for long periods of time. With that said, it is nearly impossible to collect data by surveying Afghani women, as this is also considered culturally inappropriate. Sadly, even after women receive treatment, they must then return to their husbands who tend to still use opium. This increases the likelihood of relapse due to their environmental stimuli. To avoid this problem, it is being proposed that clinics treat the entire family as opposed to just individual family members [13].

U.S. and U.N. Take on Afghanistan

Orders have been given to American Marines occupying Afghanistan to leave the poppy farm fields alone due to the reasons previously mentioned. The drug officials from the United Nations agree with the Americans regarding this matter. However, some soldiers oppose the idea of leaving the opium farms untouched because they feel as though the profits are going to the enemy, the former Taliban members. Another reason why the United States refuses to tear down the opium farms is that Afghani citizens who need the money to support their families will suffer [14]. Therefore, another problem that must be dealt with is how to provide financial stability to the ex-opium farmers if eradication of the farms should take place. Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, does not agree with the current situation, stating, “Either Afghanistan destroys opium, or opium will destroy Afghanistan.” He has reached out for foreign support on the matter as it has become increasingly difficult to deal with the implications under his current administration [2].

Because of the discrepancy between the desires of the Afghani government and those of the Taliban, the continual increase in opium production can potentially threaten the current political structure of the nation [2]. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has implemented a five-pillar strategy. These pillars are focused as follows: Alternative Livelihoods, Elimination/Eradication, Interdiction, Law Enforcement/Justice Reform, and Public Information [16]. There have been three major reasons why the United States counter strategy has not been successful according to the US Air Force. These include the lack of security in the environment, the fact that eradication is counterproductive, and finally that the 5 pillar strategy is not correctly prioritized. It has been estimated that in 2005, the U.S. spent 782 million USD in order to put its eradication efforts into play. Each pillar was given a set budget, totaling 532 million USD. However, though the International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Agency believes that eradication is the simplest way of resolving the issue, this strategy does not take into account the fact that many farmers would be left without adequate resources to make a living [2].

Conclusion and Future Directions

Because such a large number of factors play a role in the abuse of opium in Afghanistan, the issue cannot be contained by solely using counter-narcotics measures. One way in which the problem can be alleviated is by providing monetary incentives to non-opium farmers. Although programs such as the Counter-narcotics Trust Fund and the Good Performance Fund exist to provide aid to farms, payments are terribly low due to national and international political reasons. Additionally, by implementing and enforcing higher penalties for opium farmers, opium production can be reduced [5].

The least troublesome means of opium plant reduction are alternative development programs, through which illicit crops are substituted with legal alternatives and promoted by agencies such as the UN Office of Drugs and Crime. However, complications such as infrastructure, timing, and climate and land issues exist with this solution as well [15].

Finally, international actions against drug traffickers must be taken. Preventing the import of chemicals needed to produce the drugs as well as blocking the export of the drugs can destroy the opium economy of Afghanistan. As it is, the Afghan judicial system is flawed and easily susceptible to corruption. Thus, more resources are necessary for increasing regulation of laws and the enforcement of punishment against crime. In addition to measures taken by Afghanistan, cooperation by neighboring countries is also needed in order to strengthen the physical barriers and block the smuggling of illicit drugs [5].

As with any other major national issue, with increased funding, there is possibility of improving the current opium situation in Afghanistan. However, merely pumping money into the system without proper allocation of funding can worsen the problem, as it often does in developing countries that are run by corrupt political officials. Thus, it is necessary that foreign and domestic funds be placed in the right hands, in order to ensure that the money does in fact target the various roots of the issue at hand. To ensure that the funding is actually used to fix the problem, it is proposed that a group of elected United Nations representatives be sent to the country to evaluate the issue and distribute the monetary aid as needed.

A country as impoverished as Afghanistan is struggling to keep its people fed, forcing them to turn to illegal sources of income such as opium farming. This is an issue that has existed for decades but has seen very little improvement for the numerous reasons mentioned above. Monetary aid can potentially help Afghanistan recover from its current situation and should therefore not be denied to the country. However, it is absolutely necessary that the said money be utilized effectively in order to make a difference.

Works Cited

1. Afghanistan's Drug Industry: Structure, Functioning, Dynamics, and Implications for Counter-Narcotics Policy. The World Bank. Internet: http://siteresources.worldbank.org/SOUTHASIAEXT/Resources/Publications/448813-1164651372704/UNDC.pdf.

2. Glaze, J. A. Opium and Afghanistan: Reassessing U.S. Counter-Narcotics Strategy. U.S. Army War College, 2007.

3. The World Factbook. Central Intelligence Agency. Internet: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/af.html.

4. 2010 Human Rights Report: Afghanistan. United States Department of State. Internet: http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/2010/sca/154477.htm.

5. Afghanistan Opium Survey 2007. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Internet: http://www.unodc.org/pdf/research/AFG07_ExSum_web.pdf.

6. Baasher, T. The use of drugs in the Islamic world. British Journal of Addiction 76: 233-243, 1981.

7. Afghanistan Opium Survey 2012. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Internet: http://www.unodc.org/documents/crop-monitoring/Afghanistan/ORAS_report_2012.pdf.

8. Alemi, A.A. and Naraghi, M.M. The iceberg of opium addiction: an epidemiological survey of opium addiction in a rural community. Drug and Alcohol Dependence 3:107-112, 1978.

9. Afghanistan Drug Use Survey 2005. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Internet: http://www.unodc.org/pdf/afg/2005AfghanistanDrugUseSurvey.pdf.

10. Felbab-Brown, V. Afghanistan: When Counternarcotics Undermines Counterterrorism. The Washington Quarterly 55-72, 2005.

11. Jangalak Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Center in Kabul City. The Welfare Association for the Development of Afghanistan. Internet: http://www.wadan.org/drug.asp?CatID=9&ContID=101.

12. Todd, C.S., Abed, A.M., Scott, P.T., et al. A cross-sectional assessment of utilization of addiction treatment among IDU in Kabul, Afghanistan. Substance Use & Misuse 44:416-430, 2009.

13. Mojumader, Aunohita. EurasiaNet, Afghanistan: Decoding reintegration and reconciliation. Eurasianet. Internet: http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/eav020910b.shtml.

14. Nordland, R. Afghanistan: Aid Groups "Security Deteriorating." EAWorldView. Internet: http://www.enduringamerica.com/home/2010/9/13/afghanistan-aid-groups-security-deteriorating-nordland.html.

15. Crop Eradication. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Internet: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cescr/docs/ngos/IHRA_Colombia44.pdf.

16. U.S. Counternarcotics Strategy for Afghanistan. U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Internet: http://2001-2009.state.gov/documents/organization/90671.pdf.

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