Wed Jul 7, 6:07 AM ET - Keshab Poudel, OneWorld South Asia
KATHMANDU, July 7 (OneWorld) - Authorities in Nepal are alarmed by the burgeoning drug trade, which is fuelling a sharp rise in substance abuse and HIV (news - web sites)/AIDS (news - web sites) in the Himalayan kingdom.
Informs the chief of the narcotics and disaster management cell of the Ministry of Home Affairs, Kumar
Poudel, "We have noticed a drastic increase in the number of drug peddlers and users."
Poudel says nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and international groups like the United Nations (news - web sites) are aiding efforts to curb the lucrative drug trade in Nepal, where an eight-year Maoist insurgency and political instability have destroyed the economy.
Police frequently nab peddlers with hauls of heroin and opium usually headed for foreign destinations where they fetch fantastic amounts. For instance, a kilogram of hashish costs around $90 in Nepal as compared to $5,000 in Canada.
Just last week, five women with ten kilograms of hemp were nabbed in Gulmi district, 400 miles west of the capital Kathmandu.
Deputy superintendent of police Deg Bahadur GC reveals that his force arrests around a dozen people in possession of varying quantities of injected drugs every month.
He adds, "The number of drug addicts has gone up in the city areas, especially in places like Kathmandu, (the eastern town of) Dharan and (the tourist city) Pokhara."
In February, police in Kathmandu arrested two peddlers with 669 kilograms of hashish -- the biggest haul yet -- headed towards Canada.
An increasing number of Nepalese drug peddlers are also being arrested in neighboring countries. Police officials report the growth of an international drug cartel which sends drugs to East Asian countries and Europe.
Apart from cannabis, which is cultivated in some parts of Nepal, drugs like heroin and opium come from Indian border points in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, and are sent to countries like Indonesia, the Netherlands and Australia, officials say.
In May, a court in the Tibetan capital Lhasa issued the death sentence to two drug peddlers from here. A year ago, Rabi Dahal, 38, and Ishwori Kumar Shrestha, 28, were arrested with 29.85 kilograms of contraband drugs at a Tibetan customs point in Khasa, on the Nepal-Tibet border.
Although over a dozen Nepalese are facing life imprisonment in Thailand and other East Asian countries for carrying drugs, this is the first time Chinese authorities have issued execution orders against them.
Officials say the narcotics trade has fuelled drug addiction in Nepal, where local demand for a variety of drugs has surged.
The president of the NGO Nepal Harm Reduction Association, Rishi Raj Ojha, estimates the number of drug users has increased from 40,000 to 65,000 in the last three years.
Adds Ojha, "A shocking 80 percent of them are intravenous drug users (IDUs) and share needles, resulting in the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS. Around 60 percent of IDUs suffer from HIV/AIDS and needle sharing is the main cause of the spread of the disease."
Though around a dozen NGOs are working to rehabilitate drug addicts, their efforts are far from adequate.
Explains the chairman of a treatment and support program for AIDS patients, Nava Kiran Plus, Rajiv Kafle, "Since drug users are sick patients, they require urgent and comprehensive treatment. Unfortunately, the government is more concerned about awareness generation and law enforcement."
In Butwal district, 300 miles west of Kathmandu, a group of former drug addicts is running a treatment and awareness institute, the Sahara Rehabilitation Center, which has over 20 drug addicts at present.
Many addicts say they want to kick the habit but do not know how.
Like 21-year-old HIV positive drug addict Narayan Rai (name changed on request). "I want to stop taking drugs but there is no one to help me. The police often harass me and put me into prison," he says.
Adds Rai, who stays on the outskirts of Kathmandu, "I know that sharing needles can infect people with HIV but most of us addicts are left with no other options."
Sashi Shrestha (name changed), 22, has given up drugs and is now working in a treatment center. She says Nepal severely lacks such places, where addicts can be rehabilitated and warned against sharing needles.
A study conducted by WHO and UNAIDS (news - web sites) in 2002 estimated that 30,000 injecting drug users are HIV positive in Nepal. Nearly 45 percent of them are married or have partners.
The study adds that the sharing of needles and syringes has caused HIV to reach a prevalence rate of up to 68 percent in the Kathmandu Valley, and between 20 and 45 percent nationwide among IDUs.
The government-run National Center for AIDS and STD Control recorded 3,765 HIV patients till May 2004, 586 of whom were IDUs.
Complains Ojha, "There is a huge demand for treatment, starting with oral substitution, and reintegration services, but only a few NGOs run such centers."
IDUs constitute the population sub-group in which HIV is threatening to rise most rapidly. But, lamentably, neither governmental organizations nor NGOs have the resources to effectively tackle the problem.
"One of the problems in the fight against drug abuse is that the government never made any efforts to see why the number of drug users was rising. Instead, it focused on law enforcement and awareness generation. What most drug users require is treatment and counseling," advocates Rajendra Bastakoti, convener of the NGO Prerana.