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Russia seeks U.S. help in fight against heroin epidemic

By Paul Armstrong, CNN
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Afghan drugs target Russia
  • U.S. says destruction of Afghan poppy fields is "counterproductive"
  • They argue eradication is ineffective and drives farmers into the hands of the Taliban
  • Russia's drugs chief says democracy in Afghanistan can only be achieved if drug problem is smashed
  • Russia estimates that around 30,000 addicts die from heroin overdoses each year

(CNN) -- Russia's top drugs adviser has called on the United States to use its troop surge into Afghanistan to help stem the flow of drugs entering its borders, as heroin addiction reaches epidemic levels.

Last week President Barack Obama announced plans to send an extra 30,000 U.S. troops to the region in an effort to stabilize the Afghan government by defeating the Taliban, who are believed to be heavily involved in the country's burgeoning drugs trade.

However the strategy of destroying the poppy fields of southern Afghanistan, which yield the heroin flooding out of the country, is now viewed as counterproductive by the U.S.-led coalition because it drives farmers into the hands of the Taliban.

Last year the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated that Afghan poppy farmers earned around $730 million, making it a hugely lucrative cash crop.

But Russia, estimated to have between one-and-half and six million addicts, says poppy fields are the real killer in this war-ravaged land and should be destroyed.

Video: Opium trade exposed
Video: Additional NATO troops
Video: Gates in Afghanistan

It has a compelling case: health ministry officials say overdoses kill around 80 people a day in Russia and are fueling the spread of HIV.

The U.N. says about 15 million people worldwide use heroin, opium or morphine, fueling a $65 billion market for a drug that is also fueling terrorism and insurgencies.

For many, the carnage caused by heroin is far worse than any roadside bomb or suicide attack.

Viktor Ivanov, the Director of Russia's Federal Drug Control, told CNN that his country is bearing the brunt of this trade and more must be done to crack down on poppy cultivation within Afghanistan.

"In my opinion, international community and international forces, once they take on the responsibility of creating a future for Afghanistan, must understand that without terminating its drug industry it will be difficult to create a working, democratic society in Afghanistan," he said.

Ivanov suggested the U.S. use herbicides to defoliate crops from the air, pointing out how successful this had been in eradicating crops used to produce cocaine in Colombia.

"According to U.N. data, in the past year 75 percent of cocoa plants have been destroyed," he said. "This can be attributed to the defoliation method. It is the most effective method and I'm surprised that we are not using it in Afghanistan."

But earlier this year, Washington's top envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, argued that a complete "re-think" of U.S. policy was needed because crop eradication in Afghanistan had been wasteful and ineffective.

"The Western policies against the opium crop, the poppy crop, have been a failure. They did not result in any damage to the Taliban, but they put farmers out of work," Holbrooke told reporters at a meeting of G8 nations in Trieste, Italy in June.

"We are not going to support crop eradication. We're going to phase it out," he added. Policy would instead focus on intercepting drugs and chemicals used to make them, and going after drug lords. Afghan farmers would also be encouraged to grow alternative crops.

According to the U.N., Afghan opium production this year fell for the second year running, which some analysts believe can be attributed to this policy shift.

The drug culture in Russia is, in part, a result of our proximity to Afghanistan
--Viktor Ivanov
  • Russia
  • Afghanistan
  • Heroin

But with 30,000 heroin-related deaths a year, according to health ministry figures, Russia remains unconvinced as it struggles to stem the flow of drugs through its vast southern borders.

"The drug culture in Russia is, in part, a result of our proximity to Afghanistan," Ivanov claimed. "The heroin is brought into Russia by the northern silk routes, through weakened borders in remote areas."

Ivanov also pointed to wider socio-economic reasons for Russia's drug problem but denied Moscow has an outdated approach to dealing with addiction, with the emphasis on punishment. For example, human rights groups claim addicts are placed on a "narcological register" and face arrest when they register for clean needles.

"Drug addicts are placed on it voluntarily," he said. "We are not talking about forced treatment. If a person commits an insignificant crime that may be punishable in a court of law, we have special drug courts that allow an individual to opt for voluntary addiction treatment. This allows an individual to take health into his own hands.

"Our goal is to cure them. If they want to be treated anonymously, by all means, they can do so. If they want government to assistance, we are willing to help.

"The question is not about finding, registering, and punishing a drug addict. First, an addict must acknowledge his or her own sickness. Second, society must be able to offer a qualified support system."

Meanwhile, the number of people living with HIV in Russia has more than doubled since 2001, while the lack of needle exchange programs has curbed efforts to combat the spread of the disease, says Annabel Kanabus, director of international AIDS charity AVERT.

"The crisis is still going on," she said. "Efforts at prevention are not really working."

Russia's healthcare system is already buckling under the weight of a national crisis with alcoholism. According to World Health Organization figures, the average of life expectancy of a Russian male is just 60, compared to almost 80 in most other European countries.

Russia's battle with alcoholism

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, alcohol use has risen, as Russians have struggled to adapt to economic change, health experts say. When the Soviet Union fell and the state disappeared, unemployment soared, and a significant portion of the population was pushed into poverty, Jofre-Bonet, a health economist at City University London, told CNN.

However, Ivanov feels the United States and its allies can offer some hope as it battles the equally destructive problem of heroin addiction.

CNN's Maxim Tkachenko contributed to this report.