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Afghan poppy blight may not harm heroin supply

30 May, 2012

An Afghan poppy blight helping drive up heroin prices may not dent global opiate supply, the United Nations' anti-drug tsar said on Tuesday, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai lashed out at foreigners for their part in his country's drug trade.

Karzai, after meeting United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Executive Director Yury Fedotov in Kabul, said while Afghanistan almost got the blame for supplying most of the world's opiates, it was unnamed others who "get the benefit". "The president stressed that drug trafficking and international terrorism were inextricably linked, and that most of those involved in the trafficking business are not Afghans," Karzai's office said in a statement.

Afghanistan supplies about 90 percent of the world's opium, from which heroin is made, and its poppy-driven economy helps fuel the decade-long war, lining insurgents' pockets with more than $100 million a year and earning traffickers billions more. Anti-drug watchdogs say drug-linked corruption is also pervasive within the government, with donors and law enforcement agencies pressing Karzai to do more to prosecute senior officials linked to trafficking syndicates, and confiscate millions of dollars received from their participation or bribes.

Eradication efforts - favoured by top opium consumer Russia but condemned by the United States - and a fungus that leaves the poppy bulb without the liquid form of raw opium are now threatening to give insurgents even more cash by cutting output and driving up the price. But Fedotov said it was still unclear how much impact the poppy blight would have this year and whether it would hit the crop as hard as a 2010 outbreak which slashed the harvest, with assessment still underway. "Stocks are huge. There is no expiration date almost - it might be 10 years. So if there is a dramatic decrease in the production of opium this year, I'm not sure that it would affect the final product, opium and heroin," he told reporters.

Opium can keep for years which is one of the reasons farmers prefer the crop as, unlike with foodstuffs, there is no danger of it going off on the way to market and once stored, it is rather like having money in the bank. In southern Helmand province, which is one of the country's six main poppy growing areas in the south, farmer Himat Yar said his two acre poppy crop had been decimated by blight. "My harvest was more than 100 kg last year, but was less than 10 kg this year," he said, speaking to Reuters in the province's arid Nawzad district. Jan Agha, 45, from Babaji district, said he had cultivated 33 acres of poppy, but only got only 120 kg of opium, which he said was not enough to even pay for his efforts. "People here say that foreigners have dropped a kind of powder to destroy our fields. No even our vegetables are full of disease," he said. The price of opium, meanwhile, has doubled to more than $320 a kg.

In 2011, the farm-gate value of opium production more than doubled from the previous year to $1.4 billion and now accounts for 10 percent of the economy, according to Fedotov's UNODC. Fedotov said his office was prodding Karzai's government to take steps to combat further price hikes, including education, development, jobs, and beefing up anti-narcotic laws. With foreign combat forces leaving by the end of 2014, and with much of their cash and air power expected to go with them, experts say the Afghan government needs to do much more to fight poppy cultivation. "President Karzai has assured me that he is committed to taking more active measures with regard to the drugs and organised crime," Fedotov said.

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