KABUL, Afghanistan — Drug addicts as young as a month old. Mothers who calm their children by blowing opium smoke in their faces. Whole communities hooked on heroin with few opportunities for treatment.
Use of opiates such as heroin and opium has doubled in Afghanistan in the last five years, the U.N. said Monday, as hundreds of thousands of Afghans turn to drugs to escape the misery of poverty and war.
Nearly 3 percent of Afghans aged 15 to 64 are addicted to opiates, according to a study by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. The U.N. defines addicts as regular users.
That puts Afghanistan, along with Russia and Iran, as the top three countries for opiate drug use worldwide, according to Sarah Waller, an official of the U.N.'s drug office in Kabul. She said a 2005 survey found about 1.4 percent of Afghan adults were opiate addicts.
The data suggest that even as the U.S. and its allies pour billions of dollars into programs to try to wean the Afghan economy off of drug money, opium and heroin have become more entrenched in the lives of ordinary Afghans. That creates yet another barrier to international efforts to combat the drug trade, which helps pay for the Taliban insurgency.
"The human face of Afghanistan's drug problem is not only seen on the streets of Moscow, London or Paris. It is in the eyes of its own citizens, dependent on a daily dose of opium and heroin above all – but also cannabis, painkillers and tranquilizers," said Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.
Afghanistan supplies 90 percent of the world's opium, the main ingredient in heroin, and is the global leader in hashish production. Drug crops have helped finance insurgents and encourage corruption, particularly in the south where the Taliban control cultivation of opium poppies and smuggling routes.
The Afghan government and its international backers have made a massive effort in recent years to discourage farmers from growing opium poppy, and its cultivation dropped 22 percent last year. Some of the drop is likely due to lower market prices, but the government has said it also shows that the Afghan war on drugs is having some success. Twenty of the country's 34 provinces were declared poppy-free in 2009.
Yet almost 1 million Afghans – 8 percent of the 15 to 64 age group – are regular drug users – addicted to opiates, as well as cannabis and tranquilizers, according to the report, which was based on surveys of about 2,500 drug users, community leaders, teachers and doctors.
By comparison, 0.7 percent of the population in neighboring Pakistan and 0.58 percent of Americans aged 15-64 were regular opiate users, according to the most recent U.N. data.
Treatment facilities in Afghanistan are rare. Only 10 percent of drug users surveyed had received any treatment, though 90 percent said they wanted it, according to the survey.
At one facility, the Sanja Amaj Women's Treatment Center in Kabul, a few dozen women and children are treated every day. The women wait on cots to see doctors while children spend the day coloring, playing and being tutored in a nursery.
Nearly all of the children are addicts, said Abdul Bair Ibrahimi, the coordinator for child care at Sanja Amaj. There are a number of 5- and 4-year-old addicts. The youngest they have ever seen was 1 month old.
The Associated Press toured the center in February and talked to a middle-aged woman who said she started using opium during Taliban rule, which ended with the U.S.-led invasion of 2001.
"I lost my brothers during the fighting and life was miserable. My brother-in-law used opium. He saw me crying and suggested I try it," said Shirin Gul. Then, two years ago, a nephew came to live at her house who was a heroin addict and she switched to the harder drug. She was at the treatment facility for the second time, having relapsed.
Her 15-year-old daughter, Gul Paris, was also being treated for heroin addiction. She said she started on the drug by stealing small amounts from her mother or brother.
"I didn't know if it was bad for me or not," the girl said, sitting barefoot on a bed, wearing a blue gown and a lavender headscarf. She had relapsed two months earlier, she said, after her brother started using it again.
According to the U.N. report, the number of regular opium users jumped 53 percent to 230,000 in 2009 from 150,000 in 2005, while regular heroin users more than doubled to 120,000 from 50,000. Much of the rise in heroin use was in the south where most of the opium poppies are grown.
Between 12 percent and 41 percent of Afghan police recruits test positive for drugs at regional training centers, according to a U.S. government report issued in March. U.S. troops complain their Afghan counterparts are sometimes high during military operations.
"It is a national tragedy," said Ibrahim Azhaar, Afghanistan's deputy minister of counternarcotics.
The increasing drug use has already had destabilizing effects on communities, according to community leaders interviewed for the study. They said drug use had increased violence, insecurity and theft in their areas.
"It has a devastating effect on social development in the country. It has a devastating personal effect on individuals who are affected by this addiction. And it has a larger, multiplied effect on the rest of Afghanistan," said Robert Watkins, the deputy U.N. envoy in Afghanistan.
It's unclear if the lower international price of opium in recent years has made dealers more likely to push their product inside Afghanistan, said U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, who toured the Sanja Amaj center in February.
"Clearly, this is an expanding addictive population here in this country. It really doesn't matter to a drug dealer that the people becoming addicted are poor," Kerlikowske said. "If they become addicted, they'll find ways to pay for that drug."