By VERONIKA OLEKSYN, Associated Press
Afghanistan produced dramatically more opium in 2006, increasing its yield by nearly 50 percent from a year earlier and pushing global opium production to a new record high, a U.N. report said Tuesday.
The annual report also found that the estimated level of global drug use has remained more or less unchanged for the third year, although cannabis use continues to decline in North America.
Afghanistan's opium production increased from about 4,500 tons in 2005 to 6,700 tons in 2006, according to the 2007 World Drug Report released by the Vienna-based U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. Opium is the main ingredient for heroin.
In 2006, Afghanistan accounted for 92 percent of global illicit opium production, up from 70 percent in 2000 and 52 percent a decade earlier. The higher yields in Afghanistan brought global opium production to a record high of nearly 7,300 tons last year, a 43 percent increase over 2005.
The area under opium poppy cultivation in the country has also expanded, from nearly 257,000 acres in 2005 to more than 407,000 acres in 2006 — an increase of about 59 percent.
"This is the largest area under opium poppy cultivation ever recorded in Afghanistan," the report said, noting that two-thirds of cultivation was concentrated in the country's south.
UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa warned that Afghanistan's insurgency-plagued Helmand province was becoming the world's biggest drug supplier, with opium cultivation there larger than in the rest of the country put together.
"Effective surgery on Helmand's drug and insurgency cancer will rid the world of the most dangerous source of its most dangerous narcotic and go a long way to bringing security to the region," Costa said in a statement.
Early indications suggest Afghanistan could see a further increase in opium production in 2007, the report said.
For the sixth straight year, the amount of land under opium cultivation has fallen in Southeast Asia. From 1998-2006, that region's share of world opium poppy cultivation has decreased from 67 percent to just 12 percent, largely due to declines in cultivation in Myanmar, the report said.
Southeast Asia's total opium production in 2006 was just 370 tons, it said.
The report also found that the production, trafficking and consumption of other illicit drugs have largely stabilized globally and that the estimated level of global drug use stayed about the same for the third year in a row.
About 200 million people — or 5 percent of the world's population aged between 15 and 64 — used drugs at least once in the previous 12 months, it said. Of those, an estimated 25 million were so-called problem drug users, or individuals who are heavily drug dependent. That estimate also remained unchanged from the year before.
"Recent data show that the runaway train of drug addiction has slowed down," Costa said.
Cannabis continues to account for the vast majority of illegal drug use and is consumed by some 160 million people, the report said. Globally, however, the number of people using cannabis has decreased slightly due to ongoing declines in North America and — for the first time — some declines in the largest cannabis markets of Western Europe.
"Although it is too early to speak of a general decline, signs of a stabilization of cannabis use at the global level are apparent," the report said.
Amphetamine-type stimulants — including ecstasy — remained the second most widely consumed group of substances. Over the 2005-2006 period, some 25 million people are estimated to have used amphetamines at least once in the previous 12 months, about the same as a year earlier.
Global cocaine production is estimated to have remained basically unchanged in 2006 as compared to one or two years earlier, the report said.
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