Warnings that Ireland faces another "wildfire spread" of heroin addiction similar to the 1980s have been raised following claims that the opium poppy crop has reached an all-time high in Afghanistan.
The war-ravaged country, the largest producer of opium in the world, had a record crop last year of more than 200,000 hectares, an increase of 36 per cent on the previous year.
Sinn Féin's Sean Crowe warned in the Dáil the record production could result in a repeat of the "sweep of cheap heroin that came onto the streets of Dublin" in the 1980s.
“Many of us in this House are familiar with the effects of heroin. We’ve all stood at too many graves and gone to too many funerals in relation to the drug,” the Dublin South-West TD said.
This could happen again on the streets of Dublin and across the country because of the huge increase in the Afghan harvest, which he said represented 70 per cent of the world’s opium production.
Mr Crowe said the more than 200,000 hectares of opium production was approximately the size of 283 Phoenix Parks and the UN estimated it was the equivalent of 5,500 tonnes.
“The potential is again coming down the track of another wildfire spread of heroin addiction throughout this country.”
Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Joe Costello said the situation was worse in that Afghanistan produced closer to 75 per cent of the world's opium harvest.
He said the UN office on Drugs and Crime 2013 report showed a very worrying increase of 36 per cent, to more than 200,000 hectares, some of which “will almost inevitably end up in the EU and indeed in Ireland”.
The Minister said the EU was currently devising a new partnership strategy for engagement in Afghanistan post 2014 and that strategy would include moving Afghan farmers away from “dependence on the narco-economy”.
Mr Costello said alternatives to poppy cultivation included saffron, a particularly high value alternative crop. Rose oil was also a high value export and grapes also showed potential as alternatives.
“So there is a strategy to provide high value alternatives to undermine the production of opium,” he said.
He pointed out that Afghanistan had also suffered with poppy production and an estimated one million of its citizens were addicted to heroin.
The issues were the subject of ongoing discussion in the EU and other international fora and the next UN general assembly special session on illicit drugs was scheduled to take place in September 2016, the Minister said.
But Mr Crowe expressed concern that there was a lack of urgency in the issue and cheap heroin could sweep the country. “You’re talking in terms of an ongoing discussion and looking at a strategy. But I don’t get a sense that there is any urgency in relation to this because over the last number of years the poppy has got bigger and bigger” in terms of cultivation, he said.
Mr Costello said the Government had been supportive in funding a programme in Iran dealing with illicit trafficking programme in UNDOC in Iran because it was a major transit country for opium.
But “in recent times Iran has made the death penalty the normal sanction for anyone convicted of drug-related offences and for that reason we have little choice but to remove our support for that particular programme”.
Mr Crowe said they would all oppose the death penalty for drug-trafficking “but it would be popular in some parts not only of this city but the State itself”.
He said there was a need to “look at this with a new sense of urgency” and with the view “that there is going to be a strong voice within the EU to try and tackle this problem”.
Mr Costello said the EU was keenly cognisant of the problem caused by illegal poppy production. “We all known the conflict that is taking place there currently and the difficulties in dealing with poppy production in those circumstances, but very substantial programmes being put in place” as alternatives to poppy production.