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UN: Opium Cultivation at Highest Level Since 1998

Opium poppy cultivation worldwide has reached its highest level in 16 years with number-one producer Afghanistan growing record amounts despite year-long Western efforts to eradicate the crop, the UN said Thursday.

The area used by farmers in war-torn Afghanistan to cultivate opium poppy — the plant behind the most drug-related deaths worldwide — increased last year by 36 percent, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in its annual drugs report.

Myanmar, which together with Afghanistan produces 90 percent of the world’s opium poppy, also saw the cultivated area increase by 13.5 percent.

As a result, global poppy cultivation spread to 296,720 hectares (733,210 acres), “the largest area since 1998, when estimates became available,” the UN agency said.

This comes despite years of Western-backed efforts to eradicate opium production in Afghanistan, where it is a key contributor to the economy.

With US-led NATO troops set to leave by the end of the year however, Afghan farmers have starting growing poppy again as a sort of insurance policy amid fears the country could now sink back into chaos, according to local officials.

For the UNODC, the hike in production was especially worrying as drugs like opium and heroin, produced from poppy, “cause the most burden of disease and drug-related deaths worldwide.”

UNODC chief Yury Fedotov admitted Thursday that the surge in Afghanistan was a “setback”, as heroin production has also returned to the high levels seen in 2008 and 2011.

– Cocaine cultivation drops –

Cocaine cultivation on the other hand, which is mainly based in South America, is at its lowest since 1990, the UN agency said.

With an estimated 183,000 drug-related deaths in 2012 — the last year for which numbers are available — the UNODC also complained that drug users in many countries still have limited resources to help them get over their addiction.

It also urged further efforts to prevent the spread of HIV through shared syringes and needles, a practice that is especially common in southwest Asia and eastern Europe.

Although interventions in western countries have worked in the past, “recent outbreaks of HIV among people who inject drugs in parts of Europe demonstrate how the HIV epidemic situation can change very rapidly in areas where services and interventions are scaled down,” it warned.

The recent financial crisis has also had an impact, the report noted, leading drug users to take more risks to get a fix while there has been a reduction in the number of programmes meant to prevent unsafe injecting, which could increase the likelihood of HIV or Hepatitis C infections.

In all, the number of drug users around the world — whether regular or occasional users — remained stable at 243 million, with problem users numbering about 27 million, the UNODC said.

Last year, Uruguay took a step towards becoming the world’s first nation to produce and distribute marijuana, while two US states have also recently legalised the drug, but the UNODC said it “is still too early to understand the impact of these changes.”

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