I originally met Ali in the Shahamat Health and Rehabilitation Organization, SHRO, in Herat, Afghanistan, in 2007. He was addicted to opium and heroin.
After he finished high school in Afghanistan, Ali looked for work in Iran to support his struggling family. He started using drugs to cope with his difficult life there.
When I met him, Ali wanted to relieve himself from this ferocious enemy as soon as possible, but he wasn’t finding it easy. As he spoke, he looked over to his roommate, Ghafar, lying on his bed, in severe pain.
As a drug addict, Ali lost the respect of his family and society. He now feels isolated, yet he is one of 1 million people living in Afghanistan addicted to drugs—a significant number for a population of 30 million.
The majority of addicted Afghans are either refugees who went to Iran for work, or poppy field workers in Afghanistan. The problem doesn’t just affect Afghan men—it affects entire families.
According to the UN Drugs and Criminal Office (UNDCO), 130,000 of Afghanistan’s opium addicts are women. Sharifa—who is 22 years old, and whose name has been changed at her mother’s request—is one of them.
Sharifa’s husband used to badly beat her, her mother told me. “She used to fight with her husband and ask her husband to care more for the family and bring enough food.” One day the beatings became so bad that the neighbors brought Sharifa to her mother’s house. But the husband came and took her back home. To punish her, he cut off all her hair, and he started putting opium in her food to make her less resistant.
“Now I beg Sharifa to come to my house, but she cannot because she and her 4-year-old son are addicted and need opium,” her mother said bitterly. Sharifa’s husband could not be reached for comment.
Other Afghan women have become addicted while working in poppy fields. According to the UN news service IRIN, some women have taken opium home to use in the place of medicine.
About 5,000 children in Afghanistan are now addicted to the drug, according to a survey conducted by Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, an independent political and social organization of Afghan women. In some cases, mothers addicted to opium while they are pregnant pass the addiction on to their children. In other cases, mothers lack awareness about the side effects of opium and boil poppy seeds in water to feeding to their children to help them to sleep better.
It is clear that drug addiction is creating social disorder in Afghanistan, but it isn’t easy to find solutions.
On the one hand, Afghan society’s intolerance towards drug addicts discourages the use of drugs. On the other hand, it can isolate people who are addicted, and make them more dependent on the drugs.
The government of Afghanistan has taken steps to eradicate opium. In 2002, it passed a law to eradicate it and declared its cultivation illegal. It also destroyed some of the farmers’ lands.
But the government has been ineffective in ending the drug trade and may have even been complicit in it. A 2009 US State Department report found that “government officials are believed to profit from the drug trade.” The report added that narcotics-related corruption was particularly pervasive at the provincial and district levels of government.
Because opium production supports farmer’s livelihoods and the national economy, the eradication of poppy plants is controversial. Many believe that the government can’t control the problem unless farmers want to create a change.
“Ninety-three percent of [the] world’s total opiate is produced by Afghanistan,” writes Harvard University scholar Jeffrey Clemens. “The crop was estimated [at] an export value of around $3.1 billion, which is equivalent to 46 percent of [the] Afghanistan Gross Domestic Product.”
There is a high demand for opiates in the global market, and some argue that if Afghanistan eliminates opium cultivation, another country will just take its place.
Cultivating opium is also a major labor opportunity for Afghan farmers. About 366,500 Afghan families cultivated opium poppy in 2007 and 2008, according to Clemens.
He proposes a simple economic explanation. Opium laborers earn more than triple the wages that laborers of other crops earn. They typically earn $6.80 per day, whereas laborers who cultivate wheat typically earn $1 or $2 per day. And opium production is more labor intensive than other crops. For example, while wheat requires just 41 days of cultivation, opium requires 350 days. The harvesting time for opium also lasts longer—by two to three weeks—than the harvesting time of other crops, like wheat.
And many of the opportunities from opium cultivation are specifically helping women.
“An interesting result of the labor-intensive nature of opium production is its effect on the rural household economy, the division of labor and opportunities for Afghan women,” according to an IRIN report.
In Afghanistan’s traditional Islamic society, there are very few employment opportunities for women. Opium cultivation is one way for women in rural areas of the country to become economically independent.
Bibi Deendaray, 55, is a female farmer in the poppy fields of the Kandahar province of Afghanistan. She says the crop has saved her family, according to an UNDCO report.
“In fact, I should say it is not an illicit crop but rather a blessing, which saves the lives of my children, grandchildren, and two widowed daughters,” she said. “In general, it is the only means of survival for thousands of women-headed households, women and children in our village whose men are either jobless or were killed during the war.”
Women like Deendaray say that eradicating the crop will devastate women-headed households, while others argue that the effects of addiction on women are equally devastating.
Afghan farmers are the roots of this huge tree, so their decisions can make a difference. But as long they can earn more money and support their households cultivating opium, they don’t have incentives to cultivate other crops. Farmers say they worry that a new crop may not earn as much money as opium does.
Finding a solution to this problem would bring positive change to the whole nation. Media campaigns could be an effective way to reach farmers in rural areas Afghanistan, where people might not go to school but do watch TV or listen to the radio. Advertising could help raise awareness about the side affects of opium, and the long-term costs of relying on an illegal crop. But the strongest solution may be to find crops that can replace the income farmers are currently earning.
Abdul Samad, a farmer in the Herat province, says that he earns more cultivating saffron than he did with opium, according to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, nonprofit organization that operations in London and Washington, D.C. “With poppy, I got between US $400 and $600 for each jerib (half acre) of land,” he says. “Now I make more than US $5,000.”
Saffron is a crop with a very high demand and high price in the world market. In addition to being a valuable crop, saffron is also morally accepted by society and by Islamic law, and is legally accepted by Afghanistan’s government. It is valued for it is color and taste, and is mostly used as a cooking spice, and in some regions it is used in tea.
Like opium, Saffron is also labor intensive. If saffron cultivation develops, a woman may find opportunities to work and earn as much, if not more, than they could earn in the poppy fields. Saffron may be the only medicine that can cure widespread addiction in Afghanistan.