Afghanistan, home to the heroin trade, is moving to met

The Kabul Rehabilitation Center treats meta-dependent Afghans
The Kabul Rehabilitation Center treats meta-dependent Afghans

Under Kabul’s busy bridge, between dumped piles of garbage and a dirty watercourse, lives a community of homeless men damaged by drugs.

“One has no place,” said Khudadad, 48. “It’s not even suitable for a dog.”

Khudadad has been addicted to both heroin and methamphetamine for the past five years – known as crystal meth. Heroin has long been a problem in Kabul, but now many are turning to met, a cheaper but equally dangerous drug.

“When I first started, met wasn’t very common,” Khudadad said. “But over the last few years, more and more people have started taking it.”

A new report released on Tuesday warns that Afghanistan is becoming a major global producer of methamphetamine. The country’s opium poppy areas already account for the majority of the world’s heroin, and this report warns the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) that crystal meth may eventually become an equally large industry.

The recovery is the result of the discovery by drug traffickers that a key element of met: ephedrine can be created using an ephedra that is commonly grown wild in some areas of Afghanistan: ephedrine.

“The realization that wildlife in the mountains can produce methamphetamine was a fundamental game changer,” said Dr. David Mansfield, an expert in the Afghan drug industry and lead author of the report.

Afghan met
Afghan drug labs now produce metam from plants commonly found in the wild

Dr. Mansfield said drug dealers used to take ephedrine out of more expensive imported drugs, but now they could use this much cheaper alternative and some “simple chemicals.”

The Ephedra plant has also been used to create crystal forests in other parts of the globe, but not to the extent discovered in Afghanistan. Using satellite imagery and interviews with Afghan drug manufacturers, Dr. Mansfield and a research team mapped more than 300 putative ephedrine laboratories in a single area in western Afghanistan, Bakwa. The area has become the center of the country’s met-commerce, but Dr. Mansfield has begun identifying labs elsewhere as well.

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The team discovered that methamphetamine production was a “two-tier process,” ephedrine is relatively easy to produce even for people living in poor households, who then sell it to more specialized “meth chefs”. The researchers were able to identify images of ephedrine laboratories using large amounts of sewage and dried ephedra plants left over from the process and deposited outside buildings.

The often found plant ephedra is used to produce methine
The often found plant ephedra is used to produce methine

The United States has carried out air strikes against Afghanistan’s alleged drug laboratories in the past, bombing 68 days in May 2019 in a single day. But because of the simplicity of rebuilding civilian casualties and makeshift factories, the campaign could be abandoned.

However, the Taliban are imposing a tax on drug traffickers. The EMCDDA reports that the Taliban can earn $ 4 million a year from the Bakma district alone, depending on the amount of ephedrine and methamphetamine produced. The group collects taxes on a wide variety of industries in the areas under its control, although they deny its connection to the drug trade.

Anonymously, one Afghan smuggler told the BBC that the insurgents had imposed a tax on both farmers harvesting the ephedra crop and, again, anyone transporting the drug for sale. “There are Taliban checkpoints everywhere,” he said, “so you can’t hide from them.”

Asked why the Taliban, because of their professed Islamic ideology, did not oppose the sale of the drug, the smuggler replied that the Taliban say, “We are in the middle of a war, so it’s okay, but when the time comes, we ban it.”

The researchers found about 300 putative laboratories in Bakwa district alone
The researchers found about 300 putative laboratories in Bakwa district alone

Some of the meta produced in Afghanistan is consumed domestically or across borders in Iran. But it still seems to be being marketed much further away.

This year, hundreds of kilograms of drugs worth tens of millions of dollars have been found in operations searched by the Sri Lankan Navy as well as international forces patrolling the Arabian Sea, presumably from Afghanistan. There are fears that methamphetamine could end in Europe as well, following the heroin route from Pakistan and Iran and then through East Africa. Andrew Cunningham, another author of the EMCDDA report, told the BBC that methamphetamine use was not “widespread” in Europe at the moment, but added that “there is a good chance that crystal meth will continue to make its way to Europe in some cases.”

Australian authorities have already noticed in recent years an increase in the number of methamphetamine seizures related to Afghanistan and neighboring Iran, including huge amounts of drugs dissolved in mineral water bottle crates with a street value of more than $ 50 million. in April.

Andrew Parkinson, led by a team of Australian Federal Police, conducts forensic analysis of seized drugs and told the BBC that the results show that “ephedrine is produced in its natural form, which indicates to us that the starting product is the ephedra plant. “.

“This gives us ammunition to influence the organized criminal groups that produce this methamphetamine and transport it to Australia,” he said.

Although Afghan meta can be exported worldwide, its impact is felt primarily on the streets of Kabul. Next to the bridge, which has become a refuge for drug addicts, one man tells us he spent months looking for his younger brother, a meth user. “Our mother died of all the stress,” she said.

Due to the continuing instability of the country, the amount of methamphetamine produced and the number of lives ruined by it will only increase. “The deal has never been better,” said one of the smugglers, laughing.

Further accounts by Sami Yousafzai and Mahfouz Zubaide