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Paris Meeting Tackles Rising Opium, Heroin Problem in Afghanistan - 2003-05-21


Drug experts and foreign ministers from Europe and central Asia are meeting in Paris Wednesday and Thursday, to tackle the problem of opium and heroin flooding out of Afghanistan. The meeting is the first of its kind to address a troubling, transcontinental problem.

Trade and production of opium and heroin have soared since the end of the war in Afghanistan. The United Nations estimates opium production in that country at 3400 tons during 2002 and 2003 - a stunning rise from 2001.

Afghanistan's farmers, some of the poorest in the world, have become the world's top producers of opium. But the drug primarily enriches traders and sellers, who operate from Peshawar to Paris.

Experts say the drugs also are helping spread the AIDS virus across central Asia and Europe, since users often shoot up with dirty, shared needles, thus passing on the disease.

These troubling facts have prompted the French government to arrange the region's first top level meeting on the issue. Those participating in the two-day conference in Paris are expected to examine ways of jointly cracking down on poppy production, along with drug trade and consumption.

Doing so, the experts say, will not only involve joint police cooperation, but must also address matters such as AIDS prevention as well as developing alternative sources of income for Afghan farmers.

Some 55 European and Asian countries have been invited to the conference, along with a dozen international organizations. Since the conference is being held on the sidelines of a Group of Eight foreign ministers' meeting in the French capital, many top ministers will be present.

Only two years ago, opium and heroin production appeared to be in decline. Afghanistan's former Taleban regime launched a tough crackdown against poppy production, declaring it anti-Islamic. But the new, fledgling government of Afghan leader Hamid Karzai has been unable to prevent a resurgence of poppy cultivation.

At the same time, the United Nations says, the price of a kilogram of opium has ballooned from $50 just a few years ago to $540 Wednesday.

According to U.N. figures, opium production now accounts for 19 percent of Afghanistan's economy. Trade has become a $25 billion annual industry, involving large criminal gangs that earn roughly 100 times more than those producing the drug. But according to the French government, authorities seize only five to 15 percent of the illegal cargo.

Official figures show that in recent years, heroin use has leveled off in Western Europe, where the Netherlands serves as the local trading hub. But the United Nations says heroin consumption has risen in countries such as Russia, Iran and Pakistan.