Afghanistan has become the world's top producer of opium. According to the United Nations, the Southern Asian nation supplies more than 90 percent of the world market in opiates. And while the drug trade is not new to Afghanistan, it's beginning to leave its mark on society.

Despite Kabul's extensive eradication efforts, Afghanistan still produced 8,000 more tons of opium poppies this year than it did in 2006. The United Nations says that is 34 percent more than last year's harvest.

The country's opium trade accounts for more than half its Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, says Amy Frumin of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. That's about four-billion dollars or 29 percent more than last year's earnings.

"Afghanistan had historically been a cultivator of drugs and only recently has begun producing and refining the drugs as well. So that has a different impact than just the growing of drugs. And the narco trade represents about 52 percent of the GDP of Afghanistan. So it's a very lucrative and illicit industry," says Frumin. 

On the Road to Heroin

The country's recently acquired refining capability allows producers to set up small, mobile factories along Afghanistan's borders with Pakistan and Iran that turn opium into heroine. Some analysts say much of the production takes place in areas controlled by Taliban insurgents, such as Helmand Province, and Kandahar.

But Alexander Their of the United States Institute of Peace in Washington says the country's drug economy is pervasive. "Millions of Afghans from farming families benefit directly from the production of opium, because they sell the opium and receive the proceeds of it. But an increasing amount of the drug is being refined in Afghanistan today, which means that there are also traders and traffickers who are benefiting tremendously from the opium economy," says Their. "And then there are government officials or people within insurgent movements who are either enabling the trade or taxing the trade. And so the economic effect is really very far and deep-reaching within Afghan society."

Many analysts argue that poor farmers are forced to grow opium poppy as a cash crop for lack of better options. Norine MacDonald, President of the Paris-based international research group, The Senlis Council, says Afghanistan remains poor and undeveloped, despite recent economic progress. "You are getting ten, fifteen, twenty times more for growing opium poppy than any of the alternative crops that are currently available. It's a very desert area. There's been drought for several years, and there are no formal, proper irrigation systems in place. Poppy is a drought-resistant crop. So that's why they have found themselves really in a corner where poppy is the only viable crop to allow them to earn enough to feed their families," says MacDonald.

According to U.N. estimates, a farmer can make more than $100 from a kilogram of freshly harvested opium. That same kilogram can fetch nearly $600 when it reaches Iran and more than $800 in China.

But the opium poppy is not just about drugs, says Nazif Shahrani, Chairman of the Near Eastern Languages and Cultures Department at Indiana University. Every part of the plant, says Shahrani, benefits the farmers and their families. "The opium sap is only one part of the produce from poppy. The sap is sold for cash. But also the poppy seed is used to extract oil. The poppy pod as well as even the stalk can be used to sell for cash either directly or by boiling it and getting a watery substance that can be reduced to something useable. If they don't do that, the poppy stalk is a valuable fuel. And in some rural areas, they burn poppy stalks and then extract caustic soda from it and produce organic soup," says Shahrani. "And one of the challenges is that you can't find a substitute for this crop."

More Than Money

Afghanis have traditionally used opium as a social drug and as medicine. In some remote regions, parents give it to their infants to keep them quiet while the mothers work. But many experts say drug use has spiked in recent years as refugees returning from Iran and Pakistan brought home a previously unknown phenomenon - - heroine injections. That, coupled with two other factors, has fueled an increase in drug abuse, says Alexander Their of the United States Institute of Peace.

"One is that as Afghanistan's population has grown, and the war and conflict have destroyed some of its economy and you have an increasing urbanization of the population. You have a lot of people who are unemployed, particularly a lot of young men. And that is really the demographic that tends to use opium and particularly heroine," says Their. "The second danger is that opium is now being refined in Afghanistan. Previously, you would not have found heroine in Afghanistan, which is much more addictive. And now you do find it, which means that more people are getting addicted more easily." 

What makes drug addiction in Afghanistan more alarming is that the country is ill-equipped to deal with it. The Senlis Council's Norine MacDonald says the country's health care system is too basic even to meet the needs of ordinary citizens, let alone drug addicts. "They are at the very bottom of all the health care indicators. And the injection use of heroine brings with it the spread of HIV/AIDS. They are lucky that they don't have the HIV/AIDS problem, but we're seeing the beginnings of it, perhaps a 1,000 or 2,000 cases of infection, perhaps 250 recorded deaths. So they really are unequipped to deal with an HIV/AIDS crisis."

Many Afghan provinces do not grow opium poppy. And many farmers consider its cultivation contrary to their Muslim values. Most experts see in that abstinence the potential to lure poppy farmers away from the drug economy - - given time, incentives and viable alternatives.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.