Afghanistan's Opium Plague

By Kevin Sites

The Afghan Drug Problem by the Numbers

Afghanistan’s drug story begins with a well-worn fact: the country is the world’s largest producer of poppy opium, the raw material from which heroin is made.

Here is a less worn fact: Afghans have now become a leading consumer of their own drugs. An estimated one-million citizens (or eight-percent of the total population) are addicted, according to a United Nations survey.

Some experts believe this enormous drug problem may present a greater long-term threat to the stability of the country than the war.

Here is an index of Afghanistan’s drug statistics based on the annual United Nations Opium Surveys from 2009 to 2012:

— UN officials blame the drug addiction problem on three things: decades of war-related trauma, unlimited availability of cheap narcotics, and limited access to treatment.

— At least one-million Afghans are addicted to drugs, but likely more since the survey doesn’t cover women and children.

— There are 350,000 heroin and opium addicts, a 75 percent increase since 2005.

— Fifty percent of Afghanistan’s opium-using parents give the drug to their children.

— Between 12 to 41 percent of Afghan police recruits test positive for some kind of drugs.

— Nearly 900 tons of opium and 375 tons of heroin are trafficked from Afghanistan every year.

— Afghan opium/heroin has a double-impact, creating health havocs in consuming nations and putting large amounts of money in the hands of both criminals and terrorist movements.

— Ironically, the number of people dying from heroin overdoses in Russia and NATO countries is actually higher than the number of their soldiers killed during war-time engagements in Afghanistan.

— Opium poppy cultivation rose by 18 percent in 2012 despite eradication efforts by Afghan governors.

— Government corruption plays a role in undercutting efforts to take on the opium trade. So does the Taliban, who tax the crop in areas under their control.

— The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that the Taliban may have earned as much as $700 million from the poppy crop in 2011.

— Poppy thrives in poor soil and Afghan farmers can make up to $10,000 a year per hectare of raw opium, versus $120 per hectare of wheat.

— Heroin is considered by many health officials as the world’s most deadly drug with a market of $65 billion worldwide and 15 million addicts, 100,000 heroin related deaths, and a major contributor to the spread of HIV.

Under the Bridge in West Kabul

In West Kabul there is a bridge called Pul-sokhta where hundreds of Afghan drugs addicts gather to shoot up heroin, smoke, buy, and sell drugs or nod off after using. Raw sewage flows openly under the bridge and garbage covers nearly every inch of ground.

Addicts under the bridge smoke heroin as well as shoot it up. A 23-year-old named Hasibullah tells us they put the heroin on foil—sometimes from the inside of cigarette packs—and light it up. They suck in the smoke using straws from juice boxes.

This guy, who called himself Shir Shaw, says he’s been doing heroin for a year under the bridge. He first started by smoking hashish while in the Afghan Army, eventually adding heroin to it. He steals, begs, or works helping to fill up taxis with people (Afghanis share their rides to central locations) to earn the equivalent of a couple of dollars a day, usually buying four ampules of heroin.

He says he spends his days shooting up and his nights hustling for money.

Hasibullah: It’s hell down here. We sleep in the dirt and shit. Everyone is always fighting, but once they inject they just fall asleep, fall down, and forget where they are. When someone dies, government comes and gets the body and they hold it for the family to pick it up. There are doctor’s assistants down there, university graduates, soldiers—they have family issues, lost people in the war, economic problems, or too much money, started having fun, and now can’t stop.”

The path under the Pul-sokhta Bridge is lined with flowing sewage and filled with garbage. Many consider those who follow where it leads to be already dead. 

All text and photos by Kevin Sites.

Kevin Sites is a rare breed of journalist who thrives in the throes of war. As Yahoo! News’s first war correspondent between 2005 and 2006, he gained notoriety for covering every major conflict across the globe in one year’s time and fostering a technology-driven, one-man-band approach to reporting that helped usher in the “backpack movement.” Kevin is currently traveling through Afghanistan covering the tumultuous country during "fighting season" as international forces like the US pullout. Keep coming back to VICE.com for more dispatches from Kevin.

More on VICE from Kevin Sites: Afghanistan's Skate Camp for Kids

Follow Kevin on Twitter: @kevinsites

And visit his personal website: KevinSitesReports.com

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