Opium cultivation in Afghanistan has decreased for the first time since 2001, according to Antonio Maria Costa, the head of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. But there have been alarming changes in narco-trafficking patterns.

Mr. Costa says the area devoted to drug crops in Afghanistan declined 21-percent during the past year as 50,000 heads of households made the decision not to plant their fields with opium poppy.

Unfortunately, that is one of the few encouraging findings in the annual Afghanistan Opium Survey.

Favorable weather conditions and reductions in plant disease resulted in bigger yields per hectare. The survey also found drug addiction much higher than previous estimates, with about 3.8 percent of the population taking drugs, mostly hashish. 

The prognosis for 2006, Mr. Costa says, is not good. 

"We have news that in a number of provinces, traffickers are distributing free of charge opium seeds, which may lead to higher cultivation in 2006," he said.  "Point number two, the security situation is deteriorating in some of the provinces which were not cultivating large amounts of opium last year, which may lead to higher cultivation, at least in these provinces."

Mr. Costa says farmers are increasingly complaining about lack of assistance from the government and the international community.

The survey finds a dramatic shift in the patterns of drug trafficking, accompanied by significant declines in trafficking along traditional routes in Central Asia and Pakistan.

"The amount of opium and heroin and morphine going through Iran has increased by 50 percent, from 40 percent to 61 percent," he added.  "It basically means there has been a major readjustment in the trafficking, less through Central Asia and Russia, less through Pakistan and down to the Gulf and more to Iran, the Kurdish region, Iraq, Turkey, the Balkans and so forth."

The survey measured cannabis cultivation in Afghanistan for the first time and found Afghanistan is the second largest producer after Morocco.

To deal with the drug problem in Afghanistan, Mr. Costa says more development and security assistance is needed quickly and serious efforts must be made to eliminate widespread corruption.