A United Nations study released Wednesday says drug use is increasing in the developing world, and a report released earlier this week showed particular problems in Afghanistan, the world's largest opium producer. The U.N. says nearly 8 percent of Afghanistan's population suffers some form of addiction, and many of those using drugs are children.
The U.N. study finds nearly one million Afghans between 15 and 64 years old are suffering from some form of drug addiction. That's roughly 8 percent of the war-torn country's population. Over a four year period, the number of regular opium users jumped 53 percent. And the number of regular heroin users jumped a staggering 140 percent.
"What we are seeing here is another demonstration -- the availability of drugs generates its own addiction," said Antonio Maria Costa, who is with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Another disturbing statistic, nearly 50 percent of adult drug users in Afghanistan's north and south gave opium to their children, an indication, Costa says, that a generation of Afghan children are at risk.
Jason Campbell, with the Rand Corporation, a think tank in suburban Washington, says Afghan and international officials must tackle both the source and the consequences of the nation's drug problem. "First, is to continue to stress the importance of trying to grow alternative crops. As far as addiction goes, start looking more, again, at some of the treatment opportunities, options, because they seem to be largely non-existent right now," he said.
Campbell says Afghan and world leaders must look at the socio-economic factors fueling drug use. "The study alludes to things such as hopelessness, the lack of medical care. These are all things that you know if your people have something to live for, the economy starts getting stronger, they start having access to basic medical care, they are going to be overall less likely to turn to drugs," he said.
One major problem: some 700,000 Afghans have no access to drug treatment. Only 10 percent have received treatment. Ninety percent of those surveyed felt they needed help.
Campbell says an aggressive approach used to combat drug use among Afghan security and police forces might work elsewhere. "Over the last few months, there have been a number of training centers open that are exclusively for members of both the Afghan National Army and the Afghan national police force, and I would say that drug usage and illiteracy are two of the big problems within the security forces that NATO has really made a big priority now. What remains to be seen is whether this will have a long-term effect, positive effect on the security forces, and maybe are there ways we can replicate some of these treatment programs to be more inclusive of the general public," he said.
Campbell says Afghanistan's drug problem will take decades to tackle. And it won't go away until the Afghan people understand how it directly affects them.
"You look at a lot of interviews with farmers and they basically say 'Look, I grow the opium. Someone collects it. I get paid and I get to feed my family.' To them, for the most part, that drug goes out internationally, to the West and it really doesn't have a personal connection to them. But as you said, if you start seeing people in your village, and even relatives, succumb to addiction, that might again help to make them more receptive to trying to grow these other crops that are a better part of forming a stronger society," he said.
In the meantime, the social costs to Afghanistan's population are rising. The U.N. says they include loss of productivity and family income, as well as violence, security problems and traffic and workplace accidents.