For decades, the war-torn country of Afghanistan has been the world’s largest producer of illicit opiates (opium, heroin and morphine). According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghanistan accounted for a staggering 85 percent of global opium production in 2020. “It’s as easy as growing potatoes, you just don’t need to do much,” one poppy farmer said.
In April 2022, the ruling Taliban declared a ban on growing poppies, although doing so has always been formally illegal. Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s supreme leader, announced a religious edict: “Cultivation of poppy has been strictly prohibited across the country. Usage, transportation, trade, export and import of all types of narcotics … including drug manufacturing factories in Afghanistan are strictly banned. If anyone violates the decree, the crop will be destroyed immediately…”
The renewed ban may well ultimately fail—while causing more suffering along the way.
If the supply of Afghan heroin dries up, countries that import it face a grave threat of increased overdose deaths through a switch to synthetic opioids, like fentanyl.
But if it succeeds, it will destroy hundreds of thousands of livelihoods in a country where poverty impacts more than 90 percent of the population. And downstream, if the supply of Afghan heroin dries up, countries that import it face a grave threat of increased overdose deaths through a switch to synthetic opioids, like fentanyl.
In the short term at least, it now appears that the ban has been effective. Satellite images suggest that Afghan poppy cultivation decreased by 80 percent in 2023, compared with the previous year. Helmand province, which grows over half of the poppy in the country, saw the steepest drop.
Such declines in cultivation haven’t happened since the Taliban’s short-lived crackdown in 2000-2001. But not all provinces have complied.
“Satellite imagery of cultivation in Afghanistan shows that the ban has not been universally enforced,” Dr. Julia Buxton, an expert on international drug policy and British Academy global professor at the University of Manchester, told Filter. “Planting continued in the districts of Nangarhar and Kandahar … Taliban commanders responsible for overseeing the ban have avoided enforcement in a number of districts where this has risked popular protest.”
The ban’s impact on the livelihoods of farmers, their communities and the national economy was not immediately dramatic. That’s because the Taliban granted a short grace period, which meant the 2022 harvest was largely unaffected.
“The authorities didn’t touch the standing crop—the one planted in the fall of 2021—that was only a week or two from harvest,” David Mansfield, an independent researcher on illicit drugs in Afghanistan, reported, “as that would have provoked widespread unrest so close to the harvest season and after farmers had invested considerable time and resources in their poppy fields.”
Drug warriors refuse to learn a key lesson of 50 years of worldwide drug prohibition: the law of supply and demand. If a ban is successful in reducing supply, a shortage will be created. A shortage boosts prices and profits for those still in the trade.
Sure enough, after the announcement of the ban in April 2022, opium prices in Afghanistan rose. In anticipation of a new crackdown, farmers with large landholdings will often stockpile inventories of opium because prices will go up next season. A higher price for opium in Afghanistan, when no other crops command the same price, is a massive incentive to continue cultivation and production.
In 2022, the opium industry provided jobs for 450,000 people and netted $1.3 billion in income to farmers. From harvesters to lab workers to smugglers, poppy provides a living, so defying the ban, for many, is a risk worth taking.
Because what else is there? Alternative livelihoods? A 2018 report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found that despite spending of over $8 billion on counternarcotics efforts across two decades, “Alternative development programs were often too short-term, failed to provide sustainable alternatives to poppy, and sometimes even contributed to poppy production.” In other words, a complete failure.
“Accelerating the ban into a second year will begin to bite into the interests of influential Taliban actors in the opium trade, a side of the opium economy that has remained under the radar.”
So the latest enforcement against poppy cultivation may have caused a significant decline in production, but in no way guarantees that it will continue. Poppy remains Afghanistan’s most valuable export crop.
Violent confrontations between the Taliban and communities dependent on growing poppies will be inevitable if this goes on. Afghan farmers have a long history of resisting crop eradication. And at some point, the Taliban government will have to make a political calculation on if it is worth killing and alienating the people responsible for powering the economy. That could result in local authorities playing a face-saving game; there is an official ban from Kabul, but in practice it’s unenforced across the country.
“Accelerating the opium poppy ban into a second year will also begin to bite into the interests of influential Taliban actors in the opium trade, a side of the opium economy that has remained under the radar of the Taliban, which has remained focused on farmers,” Buxton added.
However, if the ban is sustained effectively for years, it will have dire consequences for Afghans.
“A complete halt to the drug economy, especially to opium production, trade and export, would be a major blow not only to many individual households but also to the national economy,” wrote Jelena Bjelica and Fabrizio Foschini of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. “Such a sudden drop in national income would surely exacerbate the humanitarian crisis affecting Afghanistan since the Taliban capture of power.”
Hundreds of thousands of Afghans have fled to Pakistan and Iran to escape the ongoing economic crisis and harsh Taliban rule. If the poppy infrastructure collapses, even more people will migrate.
Effectively maintained poppy prohibition would have knock-on effects throughout the region. Cultivation would potentially be displaced to neighboring countries. It’s known as the balloon effect: If drug production is pushed down in one country, it pops up in another. The balloon effect is how Afghanistan achieved the status of top poppy grower in the world in the first place.
Yet this process would likely entail severe disruption before markets stabilized. And if the global drug supply chain stops exporting Afghan heroin to consumer countries, the health of people who use opiates in Russia, Central Asia and Europe is at great risk.
The old world of plant-based drugs is being replaced by a new world of synthetics, like illicit fentanyl—a market innovation attributable to prohibition and its Iron Law. Fentanyl is easily and cheaply mass produced, and hugely profitable.
There’s no doubt that the advent of a drug 50 times more potent than morphine in North America brought an exponential rise in overdose deaths. Over 106,000 lives were lost in the United States in 2021, the majority of the deaths fentanyl-related. It should serve as a grim warning to other countries that prohibition kills.
If Afghanistan ceases to be a major producer, the effects will be felt among its own people who use drugs. And neighboring Pakistan and Iran each have several million people who use poppy-based opiates.
“There is the potential for synthetic opioids to move into a supply gap. Such a development would be terrible for European countries.”
A long-term ban would dramatically impact Europe, too, where Afghan opium makes up 95 percent of the heroin market. The continent has an estimated 3.3 million people who inject drugs, alone—primarily opioids, and particularly concentrated in Eastern Europe.
“Unlike North America, continental Europe has not experienced the horrors of the fentanyl overdose crisis impacting the US and Canada,” Buxton said. But she warned, “There is the potential for synthetic opioids to move into a supply gap. Such a development would be terrible for European countries, but many are hopefully positioned to address an emerging fentanyl trend.”
Such a transformation in the Europe would take time. “The existence of stocks, and the fact that it usually takes over 12 months before the opium harvest appears in the European retail drug market as heroin, makes it too early to predict the impact on drug availability in Europe,” stated a recent report from the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction.
The report also noted that “any shortage in the availability of heroin may drive an increase in demand for synthetic opioids.”
Transform Drug Policy Foundation has sounded the alarm, and is promoting a number of harm reduction-based interventions for how the United Kingdom, or any country, can mitigate the increased overdose risk posed by an influx of synthetic opioids: Drug-checking services, safe consumption sites, fentanyl test strips, and access to methadone, buprenorphine, heroin-assisted treatment, and take-home hydromorphone.
The global drug supply chain—linking the fate of Afghan poppy farmers in Helmand province to people who smoke opium in Iran to those who inject heroin in Scotland—makes it devastatingly clear that the most effective intervention is to end the drug war, legalizing and regulating all drugs in every country.
Photograph via Hippopx/Public Domain