Photographs by James Nachtwey
We’re used to thinking of Afghanistan as the world’s drug problem: it is, after all, the leading producer of opium poppy, the raw ingredient of heroin. But lost amid U.S. and NATO efforts to halt drug exports—and remove a lucrative source of revenue for the Taliban— is the alarming growth of addiction within the country. According to a U.N. survey, from 2005 to 2009 the number of heroin addicts jumped 140%, and the number of opium users almost doubled. All told, there are close to a million Afghan drug users, or nearly a tenth of the population ages 15 to 64. The U.N. estimates there are 60,000 addicts in Kabul alone.
“It’s what we call the Coca Cola effect,” says Jean-Luc Lemahieu, head of the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan. “People always talk about the demand creating supply but forget that supply creates demand, and that’s exactly what’s happening
Inside the bomb-blasted ruins of Kabul’s old town, the morning crowd of heroin addicts huddle under woolen blankets to keep the cold out.
Afghanistan is the world’s leading producer of opium poppy. NATO spends tens of millions annually on anti-drug measures to prevent Afghan dope from flooding Moscow, New York and London – and profits from filling Taliban war coffers.
A man prepares a needle for injection in an open lot in Kabul
After injecting the drug, the man slowly drifts to sleep.
Scores of refugees flock to Kabul hoping to get a helping hand from the government, only to discover there is next to nothing for them. Except, of course, plenty of cheap drugs offering a quick escape.
Locals intimidate drug users with sticks in a open lot in Kabul.
With only a handful of rehab clinics, UN surveys show that only 10% of users countrywide have received any form of treatment, although 90% said they were in need of it.
A stone’s throw from a popular open-air drug spot, addicts shuttle back and forth down a narrow, mud-slick alley where half-gram bags of brown sugar heroin for 120 Afghanis ($2.80 USD).
Drug users inject each other under a bridge in Kabul.
A man injects himself under a bridge near an open sewer in Kabul. While overall production has dropped thanks to aggressive eradication efforts, and a blight that destroyed almost half of last year’s harvest, more Afghans than ever are getting addicted to opiates.