Disruptions to trafficking routes out of Afghanistan are leading to an increase in the presence of harmful opioids in the UK.

Disruptions to the flow of opium and heroin out of Afghanistan are leading to an increase in the presence of harmful opioids in the UK, as well as threatening the livelihoods of ordinary Afghan people who depend on narcotics revenue for survival.

Global drug traffickers and law enforcement officials have been watching the Taliban’s rapid advance across Afghanistan with bated breath. The offensive began in May 2021 when US troops withdrew from the country. Taliban and allied militant groups gradually negotiated, bribed and  fought their way to power across the rural provinces. This culminated with the group seizing the capital city, Kabul, on 15 August when President Ashraf Ghani fled to the UAE in a helicopter.

Afghanistan is responsible for around 80 per cent of the world’s illicit opium and 95 per cent of Britain’s heroin, which means that fighting in the tribal villages of Helmand can heavily shape the lives of drug dealers and users on the streets of the UK. Most of Northern Europe has a ready supply of high-purity heroin from Afghanistan and this is one of the main reasons why potent synthetic opioids – such as fentanyl – are less prevalent in the region. Expert reports suggest that disruptions to the flow of opium and heroin out of Afghanistan could lead to an increase in the presence of harmful opioids in the UK street-level heroin supply. 

A two milligram dose of fentanyl can be fatal – and there are 1000 milligrams in one gram – which means it’s exceptionally easy for suppliers to inadvertently add too much of the substance, therefore leading to a rise in hospital admissions and deaths.

The majority of the towns and cities in Afghanistan’s rural landscape are close to the main trafficking routes, and they’ve inadvertently been impacted by the recent spate of fighting. This has made it trickier for illicit drugs, such as heroin and its precursor opium, to pass through on the way to Europe. And this instability has already caused a fluctuation in the volatile import-level price of heroin across the UK and western Europe, several traffickers say. 

One Merseyside-based organised crime group member, Steven*, told Huck that the price of the drug had increased from it’s typical import-level price of £17,500 to £19,000 per kilo to more than £20,000. “Most [European import] firms are prioritising their best paying and most reliable customers right now, so people needing a consistent supply are generally coughing up more doe [cash] for their gear,” Steven explains. 

“A decent chunk of the UK heroin supply travels from Afghanistan’s rural provinces through Iran to the sea. The Afghan-Iran border closed in mid-August, as thousands of people wanted to flee the Taliban takeover,” Steven continues. “There had been loads of Covid closures before that, so things were already slower than usual.”

Over the summer, several UK distributors have cut heroin with cheap but potent synthetic opioids, such as isotonitazene and fentanyl. This has been reflected in the higher-than-usual number of heroin-related overdoses during the summer, with 46 overdose deaths in England during the first two weeks of August and five in one night alone. Public Health England has confirmed it’s likely that these deaths were caused by heroin mixed with an extremely strong synthetic opioid.

Many street-level heroin dealers and users fear supply shortages could become the norm now that the Taliban is back in control of Afghanistan. After all, the Taliban opium ban of 2000-2001 was heralded by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime as “one of the most remarkable successes ever”, with a complete cessation of cultivation in Taliban-controlled areas for the entire year leading up to the US invasion of the country. The ban was carried out in a bid by the Taliban to gain public support and sympathy, and it’s been used as the benchmark for all subsequent narcotics efforts.

Fears over shortages have been compounded by the Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid recently telling a Kabul press conference that the new government intend to enforce strict drug prohibition. “There will be no drug production, no drug smuggling,” he said. “We saw today that our young people were on drugs near the walls; this was making me very, very sad that our youth are addicted. Afghanistan will not be a country of cultivation of opium anymore.”

Since then, there have been reports of Taliban representatives telling villagers in the southern province of Kandahar, one of the country’s main opium-producing regions, that their most consistently profitable crop will soon be banned. Consequently, according to the Wall Street Journal, raw opium prices have since tripled from $70 to $200.

Professor Jonathan Goodhand, from the University of London, says that an unanticipated opium poppy ban would devastate a large proportion of Afghanistan’s rural population, unless there was a plan for alternative sources of income. It’s clear that the last opium ban caused widespread distress amongst the Taliban heartlands – it pushed the peasantry into indebtedness, causing the sale of assets and migration,” Goodhand says. “Increasingly, there was tribal resistance to the Taliban and the [2000-2001] ban would have been difficult to enforce for another year.”

The last prohibition led to a huge rise in debt, as farmers were unable to repay the $50 a kilo advance they’d received prior to the planting season. This sum had increased to $500 a kilo by harvest time. Goodhand says that a year-long ban highlighted the extent to which the ordinary working people of Afghanistan depend on narcotics revenue for survival. It reinforced that drug prohibition is unsustainable in the long-term, unless there is a means of addressing the structural factors influencing farmers to cultivate opium poppies.

Dr David Mansfield is an independent scholar and international development consultant who has been conducting fieldwork in Afghanistan since 1997. He says that a Taliban government is unlikely to be able to sustain drug prohibition for a significant period of time, noting that any price increase is merely a temporary response to the change of government.

“Smugglers often engage in price gouging in illicit markets, where upstream uncertainty and supposed disruption is used to push prices up,” he explains. “It lets them temporarily bump up prices to maximise their returns until reality catches up […] For example, Turkish and east European smugglers might not be experiencing shortages or price hikes, but could claim they are to push prices up. Others downstream won’t know any better.”

It’s exceptionally difficult to ban opium in a country where vast swathes of the population are dependent on the crop to fund their basic living expenses, Mansfield notes. Prior to the 2000-2001 ban, the Taliban had issued at least five statements prohibiting cultivation of the substance, but none had been heeded. The last ban was successfully imposed for twelve months, after significant tribal negotiation, at a time when wheat prices had nearly doubled and opium prices were at a record low.

It seems unlikely that recent events in Afghanistan will lead to a long-term heroin shortage,” Mansfield says. “With the Taliban takeover of Kabul; the halt in international aid and the freezing of the former government’s assets; there’s a growing likelihood of an economic crisis that will compel many Afghans to return to the land, even to labour intensive crops like opium poppies.”

The Taliban’s opium ban of 2000-2001 was a bargaining chip and an attempt to recast the dialogue with the international community, so it was no longer dominated by conversations about the movement’s relationship with Osama Bin Laden and its terrible record on human rights. The only countries to recognise the Taliban as a legitimate government were Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. International sanctions and lack of recognition made the Taliban-led country ineligible for financial support from the World Bank and private sector, while the Taliban’s policies – especially those regarding women – made it unpopular with international development donors.

“With the imposition of a ban on opium, Taliban authorities found themselves in the rare position of occupying the international moral high ground,” Mansfield explains. “It countered the image of Afghanistan as a pariah state and allowed the leadership to present the ban as the conduct of a responsible member of the international community: an act of self-sacrifice where the interests of consumer nations were given priority over the economic needs of the rural population of Afghanistan.”

Taliban leaders gambled that the international support – and development aid – gained from a narcotics ban would outweigh any decline in support among locals. However, this funding was not as forthcoming as anticipated. This meant the lost drug revenue significantly impacted Afghanistan’s economy, with many of the families previously dependent on opium poppy cultivation unable to meet their basic food and healthcare needs due to unemployment. Once citizens realised there was no economic alternative in place, there was a vast drop in Taliban support across rural provinces.

Dr Philip A. Berry, who authored The War on Drugs and Anglo-American Relations: Lessons from Afghanistan, recently noted that if the Taliban wishes to end opium poppy cultivation, the scale of the challenge facing them is enormous. The US and UK have spent over $9 billion on counter-narcotics programmes in Afghanistan since 2002, but the drugs industry is larger than ever. 

Speaking to Huck, Berry explains: “During the 20-year conflict, high levels of insecurity, weak rule of law, inadequate governance and poor economic conditions further entrenched the opium economy in parts of Afghanistan. This was compounded by ill-conceived counter-narcotics policies, such as opium bans and eradication, which forced farmers into poverty and – ironically – resulted in them cultivating even more opium in subsequent years to retrieve their losses.”

And just like the US and UK, who have long-since scaled back their counter-narcotics policy in Afghanistan, the Taliban have learned their lesson on the drawbacks of prohibition. This means it’s extremely unlikely they will seek to enforce a hard ban on drug production, given the challenges of securing a sustainable income for the rural population. 

There is unlikely to be a significant reduction in opium poppy cultivation, unless there is a big increase in international development funding to Afghanistan. Berry notes that the UK must shoulder part of the responsibility for record levels of narcotics production in Afghanistan, especially if it’s hoping to see a reduction in the amount of heroin on its streets. It’s not enough for Boris Johnson simply to request assurances that the Taliban will not allow Afghanistan to remain a ‘narco-state’. After all, the UK failed to achieve it’s dual objectives of eliminating opium poppies from Afghanistan and reducing the amount of heroin in the UK, Berry says.

Whether it’s Afghanistan or the UK, some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our increasingly globalised society are using heroin to escape an existence where the state has failed to provide them with adequate economic opportunity or support. It’s not Taliban-approved heroin that ruins and ends lives, but a failure to create a fair world that works for everyone.

Two decades of war and economic uncertainty have left the Afghan people turning to opium poppy cultivation and heroin production as an economic lifeline. Meanwhile, vast cuts to Britain’s drug treatment services have left many unable to cope at a time when over a decade of austerity has impacted on access to stabilising factors such as work, housing and education. This inevitably means Britain is badly-equipped to deal with any surge in the availability and purity of heroin reaching its shores, as well as any increase in the use of synthetics such as isotonitazene and fentanyl.

*Name changed to protect identity

Follow Rebecca Tidy on Twitter.

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