Afghanistan's seven top opium-producing provinces. Kandahar is where Canadian troops are stationed. (Sources: UN 2007 World Drug Report and Interpol)
Afghanistan: Heroin producer to the world
Last Updated July 5, 2007
According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the international drug economy may be in recession.
In its massive 2007 World Drug Report, the UN agency says there is strong evidence of a downward trend or at least a levelling off in the production of the world's most popular illicit drugs with one notable exception — heroin, most of it flowing from one out-of-control province in southern Afghanistan.
Indeed, opium production in Afghanistan — much of it in the regions where Canadian and British troops are supposed to be in charge — shot up dramatically last year.
The 49 per cent increase in the opium harvest, right under the noses of NATO forces, represented a doubling of the crop from 2000, when the fundamentalist Taliban were still in control, and solidified Afghanistan's position as the chief supplier of illegal opium to the world.
Afghanistan retook the heroin crown in 2002 from Myanmar (formerly Burma), partly as a result of six years of bad growing conditions and stronger policing in the so-called Golden Triangle area of southeast Asia. But the latest Afghan numbers are so large that the country now accounts for 92 per cent of the illicit global opium crop.
The annual harvest involves almost three million Afghans, is worth more than $3 billion US (almost half the value of the country's GDP), and is widely said, including by Interpol, to be funding the Taliban resistance.
The value of the crop in Helmand province alone, where 7,000 British troops are stationed and where almost 70,000 hectares of poppies were cultivated last year, represents more opium than was produced in three of the world's other leading countries, Colombia, Morocco and Myanmar.
The UNODC report, which was released at the end of June, is causing a stir in Europe (Britain in particular), because Europe is the primary destination for Afghanistan's heroin.
Also, because former prime minister Tony Blair had promised five years ago, when British troops were first sent to Afghanistan, that Britain would take responsibility for eradicating Afghanistan's poppy crop, particularly in the province, Helmand, where British forces were at their largest.
Canada's position towards the poppy crop has been more ambivalent. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said Canada is against both terrorism and drug trafficking in Afghanistan. But at the same time he has deliberately kept Canadian troops from joining the U.S. eradication program.
Senior Canadian officials have said that eliminating Afghanistan's opium dependency is a priority but only after security is established and alternative cash crops can be found, which is basically the position of NATO. Canadian soldiers, returning from tours of duty, report routinely seeing poppies and other drug crops, such as marijuana, growing brilliantly in the fields.
According to Interpol, Kandahar province, the one Canadian soldiers are attempting to pacify, has the third largest opium crop in the country with 12,619 hectares under cultivation last year. It is right beside Helmand, which has a staggering 69,324 hectares of poppies.
The U.S. had originally proposed spraying the Afghan poppy crop, as U.S. anti-drug agencies do in Central and South America. But Afghan President Hamid Karzai vetoed the idea as too destructive a measure to inflict on already impoverished farmers barely surviving after decades of conflict.
The poppy is a particularly hardy, drought-resistant crop. But American troops do plow under poppy fields where they can.
Where the H goes
In recent years, Interpol reports in its own analysis of the UNODC figures, there has been a change of tactic involving Afghanistan's heroin: much more of it is being refined within the country and stockpiled or couriered out (primarily through Iran, Interpol says) in more concealable packaging.
Because of higher yields and more sophisticated manufacturing techniques, last year's poppy crop translates into a potential 6,610 tonnes of opium — which would be the largest on record and well above current world needs.
From a law enforcement point of view, this new business plan suggests a number of things. Among them, that the Taliban may be stockpiling heroin in large amounts, particularly in Europe, either to flood the market or trade for weapons, which may help explain a growing number of heroin addicts in Russia and Eastern Europe, where old Cold War weaponry is still available.
Related external sites
According to the UNODC, there are an estimated 11 million heroin addicts around the world, 3.3 million of those in Europe and at least 1.6 million in Iran, a likely product of the pass-through of Afghan H.
The World Drug Report says that most of the heroin that arrives in Canada is from Myanmar or the old Golden Triangle area, although there may be some that comes up the West Coast from Mexico and Colombia.
Afghan's H mostly supplies markets in neighbouring countries as well as the Middle East, Europe and parts of Africa.
Heroin is, in many respects, yesterday's drug. It's 11 million users lag behind the 14.3 million who routinely use cocaine or the 25 million hooked on amphetamines, and especially behind the 159 million people worldwide who smoke marijuana.
Opiates are still, however, the recreational drug of choice in Europe, followed by grass, whereas North American's are more prone to indulge in cocaine and cannabis, almost in equal amounts.
In Canada, in particular, there are not many heroin users, fewer than 100,000, according to one recent estimate. In fact, Benedikt Fischer of the University of Victoria, one of the country's top drug researchers, reported last year that heroin is "an increasingly marginal form of drug use" in Canada and has been overtaken by the illicit trade in prescription opioids such as OxyContin and Percocet.