|HIGH-strength cannabis is the next major drug enforcement challenge, a senior United Nations official said today.|
"The potency of the cannabis herb has changed drastically," Sandeep Chawla, head of policy analysis and research at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) told Reuters.
"Hashish used to be more potent than marijuana, but this is now changing."
Growers have turned to agro-technology to increase the potency of cannabis up to five-fold, he said, using hydroponic cultivation and growing plants under artificial light in a solution of nutrients, not soil.
Mr Chawla said there were now cases of people being brought to hospital emergency rooms because of cannabis usage, which he said was unheard of in the past.
"This is a case of something that's been ignored for so long," Mr Chawla said. "Now the beast is in the room and we don't know what to do with it."
With a market worth $US140 billion ($184 billion) and more than 160 million users, cannabis is the world's most widely used illegal drug.
"We anticipate a continued increase in global cannabis usage this year," he said.
Most governments focus their policing on deadlier drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, but Mr Chawla said being soft on cannabis was a mistake.
One reason for leniency towards cannabis use was the sheer number of people using the drug and the inability of judicial systems to cope.
"If the state is not prosecuting, people think it can't be that bad to take. And the state is not prosecuting because large numbers of people are taking it," he said.
The wide use of cannabis is partly a function of its low price – a gram of cannabis retails for less than $15 in Europe, compared to $200 for a gram of pure heroin, UNODC estimates.
The UNODC expects an increase in opium production in Afghanistan this year due to increased lawlessness in the country, Mr Chawla said.
"The preliminary indications are that it's going to be higher than last year," he said.
"It's not yet possible to say whether production will cross the 1999 peak of 4565 tonnes." Last year, output was 4100 tonnes.
Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium, with its market share likely to rise from 89 percent in 2005 due to a fall in output in Laos, until recently the world's third largest producer behind Afghanistan and Myanmar.
"Laos is virtually insignificant now and Myanmar is a great deal smaller than it used to be," he said.
Afghan opium cultivation fell sharply in 2001 due to a ban by the country's Taliban rulers, but has risen sharply since.
The UNODC is due to publish results of its annual Afghanistan opium survey next month.