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VIENNA — The smuggling of Afghan opiates is fueling addiction and drug use along trafficking routes from Iran to Central Asia as well as spreading diseases and funding insurgents, the U.N. warned Wednesday.
Iran, Pakistan and Central Asian nations are among the most affected states but the negative impact of the multibillion-dollar Afghan narcotics flow is felt around the world as it continues to spread, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said in a new report.
"The Afghan opiate trade fuels consumption and addiction in countries along drug trafficking routes before reaching the main consumer markets in Europe (estimated at 3.1 million heroin users), contributing to the spread of HIV/AIDS and other blood-borne diseases," the report said.
The illegal trade has also given a financial boost to Central Asian extremists that could further destabilize the area, UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa warned in remarks accompanying the report.
"The Silk Route, turned into a heroin route, is carving out a path of death and violence through one of the world's most strategic yet volatile regions," Costa said. "The perfect storm of drugs, crime and insurgency that has swirled around the Afghanistan/Pakistan border for years is heading for Central Asia."
While Central Asian countries such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are the main trafficking route for Afghan heroin into the Russia, they also have growing domestic markets, the report warned.
In Iran, about 14 tons of Afghan heroin and a staggering 450 tons of opium were consumed locally in 2008, the report said, making it the world's biggest consumer of the drug.
"Iran faces the world's most serious opiate addiction problem, while injecting drug use in Central Asia is causing an HIV epidemic," UNODC said.
In Pakistan, the value of the opiate trade is estimated at $1 billion annually, with "undetermined amounts going to insurgents," UNODC said. Much like in Afghanistan, Pakistan-based insurgents reportedly levy taxes on businesses in this region and there is growing evidence that this extends the opiate trade, the Vienna-based organization added.
The Taliban is now making more money than when it was in power, the report said. Between 2005 and 2008, Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan drew between $90 million and $160 million annually from taxes and levies imposed on opium farmers and drug traffickers, UNODC estimated. The Taliban and other insurgents earned $75 million to $100 million a year a decade ago from taxing opium poppy cultivation, it said.
"The funds generated from the drugs trade can pay for soldiers, weapons and protection, and are an important source of patronage," it said.
Afghanistan produces 90 percent of the world's supply of opium, the raw ingredient used to make heroin.
There are around 15.4 million opiate users worldwide, according to the agency's 2008 estimates. While global heroin consumption is estimated at 340 tons per year, equivalent to 2,600 tons of opium, raw opium consumption is estimated at 1,100 tons per year.
In other findings, the report highlighted the existence of an unaccounted stockpile of 12,000 tons of opium believed to be stored in Afghanistan and possibly also in transit and destination countries.
"Thus, even if opiate production in Afghanistan were to cease immediately, there would still be ample supply," the report said.
Speculation as to why this stash is being withheld from the market ranges from economic reasons to the possibility it is being used to fund insurgents or terrorist attacks, UNODC said.
"Afghan opiates have become a truly global commodity; one which doubles as a transnational threat to international security and global health," according to the report.
Afghan farmers earned $6.4 billion from opium poppy cultivation between 2002 and 2008, while Afghan traffickers made some $18 billion from local opiate processing and trading, the report's summary said.
In contrast, the transnational trade in Afghan opiates produced a total turnover of $400 to $500 billion during that period. The combined global heroin and opium market is worth some $65 billion per year, most of which is pocketed by criminals outside Afghanistan, UNODC said.
"The source of the trade is in Afghanistan, but its bulk takes place outside the country," it said.