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A new unity of focus on the heroin trade

A coming UN special session on drugs will be a timely help for the center of the rising global trade in heroin, Afghanistan. The world must unite to set a norm against addiction.

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    Afghan farmers harvest raw opium at a poppy field in Kandahar’s Zhari district, Afghanistan.
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If one thing unites the world these days, it is a determination to end a near-record flow of heroin across borders. Next year the United Nations General Assembly plans to hold a special session on drug trafficking, its first since 1998. From China to Iran to the United States, officials are joining together to seek solutions, especially in curbing the opium trade.

Where should they focus their efforts?

The easy answer is Afghanistan, source of more than 80 percent of the world’s illicit opium.

Opium cultivation in Afghanistan reached a record last year, up 7 percent from the year before, increasing the drug money available to the country’s warlords and insurgents. Global production of opiates has doubled since 2012, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. In the US, a few states have declared an emergency over a rise in deaths from opiate overdoses.

In Afghanistan itself, drug addiction has risen sharply. And all this is despite more than $8 billion spent by the United States and other countries to eradicate the opium trade since the 2001 ouster of the Taliban regime by NATO.

The government in Kabul has had some success with interdiction of opium and in treating addicts. It needs to find high-value substitute crops that would allow farmers to earn an income similar to what they do now in growing poppies, the flowers that produce the opium for manufacturing heroin. One model can be found in Peru, where many farmers have been persuaded to switch to growing coffee instead of coca, the source for cocaine. In Afghanistan, some alternatives are saffron and hot peppers.

The newly elected government of President Ashraf Ghani must also tackle the poverty, corruption, and a climate of impunity that help drive the drug trade. He will need continued US support, especially for the Afghan Army in its war against the Taliban. And with the coming UN focus on drugs, Afghanistan will deserve special attention.

One country cannot bear such a heavy burden as the UN now turns to ways to end the opium trade. Every country with a drug problem must provide lessons and aid in kicking this habit. Global unity itself will send a strong message that drug addiction is not the norm.

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