Synthetic Drugs in Afghanistan – a problem that may well remain

As we watch Afghanistan fall apart, is it vitally important the issue of drugs is not ignored. The incoming Taliban Government must be held to account otherwise this grave situation will deteriorate even further.

Afghanistan is currently experiencing a worrying increase in the development and manufacture of synthetic drugs within its borders. Since the 1970s the country has been synonymous with the manufacture of opium, the primary component used to produce heroin. Farmers have grown dependent on the crop given the unstable economic situation caused by the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. In more recent years the production of synthetic drugs has amplified the problem of drug related issues both domestically and internationally. A report carried out by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) indicated that seizures of methamphetamine have increased significantly since 2011, particularly in Herat province where data showed 64% of the country’s methamphetamine cases were reported. The principal reason for this upward trend is the discovery of the ephedra plant commonly found in rural areas of Afghanistan. The farming of this plant has made the production of methamphetamine more efficient and cost effective. Synthetic drugs mimic the effects of plant-based drugs such as heroin and are used extensively, often as a form of pain relief, by Afghan citizens. Drug addiction has been on the increase during the war given the lack of available healthcare for residents.  

The emergence of the illicit drug market in Afghanistan has of course attracted the attention of the Taliban who have begun to use it to strengthen their sphere of influence in the region. They discovered that obtaining control over drug trafficking routes via Pakistan and Iran increased funds available to help weaponize their fighters. Previously the Taliban used taxation to levy revenue from drug traffickers as well as subsidising seed and fertiliser to farmers as a means of expanding their control in the provinces. Now that Taliban forces have taken back areas previously occupied by the United States backed former government of Afghanistan, the concern is that the synthetic drug market will fall into their hands.  

Western policies to deal with the manufacture of illegal drugs have so far been relatively unsuccessful. Targeted missile strikes on opium fields by the United States have alienated local farmers and subsequently increased Taliban support. One Western approach to drug policy had been to identify other avenues in order to sustain Afghanistan’s struggling economy. Any effective policy needs to focus on the issue of an overreliance on drug production. The UNODC are involved in programs that help to educate and raise awareness of the dangers of heroin and synthetic drugs. The Afghanistan Synthetic Drugs Situation Assessment carried out in 2017 establish that, based on data collected, the increase in synthetic drugs use is one of the country’s most pressing concerns. Western countries would do well to assist the incoming Afghan government to continue existing policies against illicit drugs. On 1st July 2021, 67 metric tons of confiscated drugs and chemical precursors were burnt on national television to highlight to the scale of the illegal drug operation in Afghanistan. Working alongside the UNODC the event exhibited the former government’s willingness to eradicate the manufacturing and consumption of drugs within Afghanistan’s borders. 

As the future of Afghanistan remains increasingly uncertain the potential for further exploitation of the illicit drug market is now a genuine threat. There are strong links between the production of illegal drugs and the socio-economic destabilisation of Afghanistan. The effects of synthetic drugs are not widely known but early signs suggest that the highly addictive nature of both methamphetamine and heroin will have a detrimental impact on Afghan society – let alone the damage they cause further afield as they are exported to the West.  

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