World failing to dent heroin trade, U.N. warns

An Afghan police officer digs up a field of opium poppies in April.
Afghan heroin kills more people from NATO countries every year than Afghan insurgents have killed in the eight years since the fall of the Taliban regime, the United Nations said Wednesday.

About 15 million people around the world use heroin, opium or morphine, fueling a $65 billion market, warned Antonio Maria Costa, head of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. The trade is fueling terrorism and insurgencies: The Taliban raised between $450 million and $600 million in the past four years by “taxing” opium farmers and traffickers, he says in a new report. Not all the money is going into the pockets of rebels or full-time drug dealers — some Afghan officials are making money off the trade as well. “The Afghan drug economy generates several hundred million dollars per year into evil hands — some with black turbans, some with white collars,” Costa says. And the problem is spreading. Drug money is now funding insurgencies in Central Asia, which has huge energy reserves, Costa says. “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,” he says.

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Authorities are seizing too little heroin — intercepting only about 20 percent of opiate traffic around the world, according to the U.N. report, titled “Addiction, Crime and Insurgency.” It comes on the heels of a U.N. warning last month that two years’ worth of opium is effectively “missing,” probably stockpiled by the Taliban and criminal gangs. More than 12,000 tons of opium — which can be consumed as a narcotic itself or turned into heroin — is unaccounted for, the United Nations estimated in September. It is not clear who has it or why, but the United Nations speculates criminals could be holding it as a hedge against falling prices, or that insurgents or terrorists could be stockpiling it to fund future attacks. The latest report claims to be the first systematic attempt to track where Afghan opium ends up. Europe and Russia together consume just under half of the heroin coming out of Afghanistan, the United Nations concludes, while Iran is by far the single largest consumer of Afghan opium. See how Afghan heroin reaches Europe and the West Afghanistan is also probably supplying an increasing share of the heroin in China — perhaps as much as a quarter, the report says. Afghanistan is by far the world’s largest producer of opium, although Laos, Myanmar (also known as Burma) and Latin America produce small quantities of the narcotic, it says.

The United Nations found that Afghanistan may be supplying more heroin to the United States and Canada than had previously been suspected. The two North American countries consume more than twice as much heroin as Latin America produces. That means either that more Afghan heroin is making its way to North America than had been known, or that Mexico and Colombia are producing more than was realized, the United Nations says.