Norway's Afghan drug problem

Published December 1, 2004 6:48PM (EST)

A recent United Nations report confirmed fears that the failure to secure greater Afghanistan since the routing of the Taliban three years ago has only made the country's nightmare of an opium trade more potent. Not surprisingly, the fallout reaches far beyond the war-torn terrain ringing Kabul. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, it includes an increasingly drug-addled Norway, where the archetypal social welfare state has become a "prime market" for the booming Afghan opium trade, and where ruined lives and overdose deaths are on the rise.

"Clean and tidy Oslo, the capital of a nation with one of the highest standards of living and some of the best social programs in the world, is one of Europe's heroin havens. Three years ago, it recorded more overdoses than any other major European city. Now, after a two-year decline in drug deaths -- in part because of the war in Afghanistan, which interrupted the production and distribution of heroin -- the number of overdoses is rising.

"Opium smuggled out of Afghanistan and turned into heroin is ferried by Albanian and Serbian gangs through Bulgaria and Romania before being distributed across Central and Northern Europe. In one raid this year, Oslo police confiscated nearly 150 pounds of heroin -- double the previous largest seizure, in 2001."

The UN recently reported that despite the presence of U.S. and international troops, opium cultivation in Afghanistan increased 64 percent this year, growing into a more than $2.8 billion annual business.

"We think the flow of heroin will increase," Oslo Police Chief Anstein Gjengedal told the Times. "It's very well organized."

Following the lead of several other European cities and Vancouver, Canada, Oslo is planning to open an official site next year where drug addicts are encouraged to shoot up safely under the supervision of nurses. Such "harm-reduction" programs have shown mixed results in protecting users and diminishing overall drug use. But it has also been clear for some time that the global war on drugs has proven futile to stop the illegal flow (a mere five percent of total worldwide traffic was successfully thwarted by military and law enforcement in 2001, according to a UN report).

The Bush administration's global war on terrorism -- with its quick-fix, mission-accomplished model for toppling enemy governments but leaving behind too few boots on the ground to help clean up the mess -- doesn't seem to be helping a whole lot, either.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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