By RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi
April 4, 2022
One of the Taliban’s first moves upon seizing power in Afghanistan was to take extreme measures to tackle the country’s drug epidemic.
To that end, thousands of addicts have been rounded up, beaten, and marched off to prison, where they have been forced to go cold turkey among hardened criminals for months.
Dawood, who was rounded up along with hundreds of other addicts in the southwestern province of Farah, says the harsh methods employed by the prison were ineffective. Within weeks of his release two months ago, he was using again.
“I have been suffering from this disease for 10 years. I was sent to prison by the Taliban’s government, but the treatment didn’t work,” he told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi. “I want to go to a rehabilitation center, because they provide better treatment.”
Afghanistan is home to an estimated 3.5 million addicts, a number that accounts for nearly 10 percent of the population. While there were some 100 drug-treatment centers operating in the country before the hard-line Islamist group returned to power in August, many that depended on foreign funding are closed or struggling to remain open. Government facilities, meanwhile, are overwhelmed with the new forced arrivals.
The leading drugs of choice in Afghanistan are opioids that derive from the opium poppy that flourishes in the country despite years of eradication efforts and attempts to sow alternative crops.
But aside from heroin and morphine, an increasing number of Afghans are now hooked on crystal meth, which drug traders have learned to produce from ephedra plants that grow wild in the central highlands.
The Taliban banned opium-poppy cultivation in 2000-2001, the last growing season before it was ousted from power following the U.S.-led invasion of the country. But over the next two decades of war, the extremist group was accused of using the proceeds from opium production to feed its insurgency. Today, Afghanistan is well-entrenched as the world’s leading producer of opium, generating up to $2.7 billion in income in 2021.
In his first press conference in August, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid vowed that the group would again ban opium poppy cultivation and trafficking. Months later Mujahid backtracked, saying a ban would deny Afghans a major source of income.
However, on April 3, Mujahid announced a new decree by Taliban Supreme Leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada that banned opium-poppy cultivation and drug manufacturing. The decree also ordered the destruction of opium crops and prohibited the trade and transport of a range of drugs.
Last year, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, marked the fifth straight that the opium harvest in Afghanistan exceeded 6,000 tons — enough to flood the world market with up to 320 tons of pure heroin and supply 80 percent of the world’s opiate users.
After foreign troops withdrew and the Taliban toppled the Western-backed Afghan government, the militants swiftly launched a crackdown on the addiction crisis that they helped to create.
Taliban fighters began rounding up large numbers of addicts from the streets of Kabul, Kandahar, and other Afghan cities, often using whips and the barrel of a gun to force them into rehab.
Some were forcibly taken to overcrowded clinics that often resemble prisons. Others were sent to actual penitentiaries that have been largely cleared of Taliban fighters imprisoned by the previous government.
Once incarcerated, shaven-headed addicts enter their forced withdrawal without the aid of treatments such as counseling and methadone, a drug commonly used to relieve addicts’ pain as they are cut off from heroin.
Officials at the Taliban prison in Farah Province that housed Davood claim to have successfully treated more than 2,000 addicts in the past seven months.
The director of the facility, Mullah Lal Mohammad Zakeri, told Radio Azadi that imprisonment is better for addicts than rehab clinics because onsite doctors can treat the incarcerated patients. Once released after two to six months in prison, he said, rehabilitated patients must sign a pledge that they will stay off drugs.
Salem Sadid, a local psychologist in Farah, does not agree that coercion is the best medicine.
“There are big differences between treating drug addicts in prisons and proper addiction-treatment centers,” Sadid told Radio Azadi. “If patients think they are being forced to quit addiction…they will never accept treatment.”
“No one can quit drugs if they are not ready to,” Sadid added. “The only way a drug addict can quit is to satisfy himself and prepare himself psychologically, which is not possible in prison.”
Hamed Elmi, a doctor who heads a 100-bed drug-rehabilitation center in Farah, echoed Sadid’s comments. The treatment of addicts in prison is neither practical nor effective, he told Radio Azadi.
“In prison, the addict is merely hospitalized as a prisoner,” Elmi said. “But he is not given the necessary medicine and medication. There is no counseling in prison. An addicted person needs counseling, and that is why they end up [being treated] in prison for a long time.”