The Taliban’s War on Opium Could Have Disastrous Effects

It’s heroin or fentanyl.

by Niko Vorobyov

26 June 2023

A man in military uniform takes a swing at poppy plants in a field with a background of mountains
A Taliban anti-narcotics police officer destroys poppy plants using a stick as the poppy harvest approaches, April 2023. Zerah Oriane/ABACA via Reuters Connect

A puff of smoke from a group of men huddled beneath us greeted me and my guide, Maiwand, as we climbed down to the rubbish-filled riverbed beneath the Pul-e-Sokhta bridge in western Kabul. Afghanistan’s Kabul River is drying out due to global heating, turning the bridge into a shelter for the desperate and homeless.

Under the bridge was darkness broken up by flashlights and bonfires broke the darkness. Hundreds huddled around in tents or just blankets, using blow torches to heat up glass pipes of meth or heroin. The addicts, almost all men, either ignored us or waved and smiled before getting back to smoking, in full view of passersby.

That was in November. Since then, the Taliban – which has ruled Afghanistan since American forces withdrew two years ago – has waged its war on drugs in earnest.

In April last year, the Taliban decreed poppy cultivation – as well as the “use, trade, transport, production, import and export of all types of drugs” – to be prohibited, both due to its harmful effects and contravention of Islam. As well as opium, the decree also reiterated an existing ban on alcohol, hashish, heroin and crystal meth.

Since then, the authorities have been gradually squeezing the drug trade from all sides, uprooting poppy fields with tractors and shutting down bazaars trading ephedra, a shrub that’s a raw material for meth. Several months ago, they began clearing out the Pul-e-Sokhta bridge in Kabul, which Maiwand says is now uninhabited.

In fact, the Taliban has cleared addicts from major cities across the country, though drugs remain accessible. In May, official statistics claimed 93,000 addicts had been “treated”, but since their underlying life situation had not improved, local media reported some had relapsed.

As for narcotic production, satellite photos analysed by researcher David Mansfield suggest poppy cultivation is down 80% across much of Afghanistan over the past year. In Helmand province, for example, the area of land used to grow poppies shrank from 120,000 hectares last year, to less than 1,000 now. Many farmers fell in line and halted planting, anxious about a visit from the Taliban, or hoarded produce from previous seasons, hoping that an opium shortage would inflate prices. There was, however, a little resistance in the north and east of the country, where the Taliban’s rule is weaker, resulting in violent clashes.

Maiwand believes the narcotics ban will remain indefinite since it’s no longer in the Taliban’s interests to support the trade.

“With the Taliban, most of them were involved in the drug business to support the fight against the [US-led] invasion, which they don’t need any more,” he explained. “It will be permanent unless things change for them and they don’t have other options to make money.”

Besides a sincere desire to clean up Afghanistan, the Talibs might also be trying to legitimise themselves on the world stage. Washington spent billions of dollars on failed counter-narcotics efforts, yet within just a few months in power, the Taliban has already achieved what decades of foreign occupation could not.

But should we be celebrating?

A particular poppy.

Papaver somniferum, or the opium poppy, is the flower whose sap can be refined into heroin. To make opium cultivation worthwhile, you need a substantial plot of land beyond the reach of the law, and that requires a weak or corrupt government: four decades of warfare, starting with the Soviet invasion in 1979, provided both in Afghanistan.

Dope became one of the largest industries and employers in the country: by 2021, the UN estimated that opiates were worth up to 14% of Afghanistan’s GDP, outweighing the country’s legal exports. Although the Taliban outlawed opium the last time they were in charge in the early 2000s, the American-led invasion brought it back, both through the chaos that followed the invasion and the US’s enlisting narcos as allies.

Not only did the Taliban allow and tax opium to fund its war effort, but many of America’s allies were drug barons, too: in 2005, nine tonnes of opium were recovered from the office of Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, then-governor of Helmand province.

Meanwhile, the Americans’ counter-narcotics efforts backfired completely: when US forces sprayed poppy fields with herbicide, this only pitted locals against the occupiers, to the point that allied soldiers instead ended up guarding poppy fields to keep the natives from rebelling.

Also seeking to appease the locals, the Brits offered the farmers compensation for bulldozing their crops, which only encouraged them to grow as much as they could to earn those easy handouts, selling the leftovers as opium.

By 2021, the UN estimated that Afghanistan was the source of 86% of the world’s opium. It’s likely the Taliban has dented this substantially. Yet its war on drugs might have a fatal loophole.

The iron law.

For the past century, narcotics have been getting stronger as laws have been growing stricter – what drug policy nerds call the iron law of prohibition.

The reason is that a more concentrated product means less to smuggle: when during the 1920s alcohol was prohibited in the United States, bootleggers like Captain Bill McCoy and Chicago gang boss Al Capone preferred smuggling whisky to beer since you didn’t need to sneak whole barrels past do-gooders like prohibition bureau agent Elliot Ness to get your customers just as tipsy. McCoy’s Scotch, which he shipped from the Bahamas, was nicknamed the real McCoy.

In Mexico, poppy farmers supplied black tar heroin to their drug-addled northern neighbours until the 2010s, when the narco-cartels switched to fentanyl: 50 times stronger than heroin, cheaper to produce, doesn’t demand a huge poppy field, easier to transport – from the trafficker’s point of view, better in every way. Over 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2021, now the leading cause of death among under-50s in the country. Fentanyl was registered in over two-thirds of those deaths, including The Wire actor Michael K. Williams.

Speaking to Novara Media, Dr Teodora Groshkova of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction says that the steady supply of Afghan heroin into Europe may have helped shield us from far deadlier synthetic opioids: “If the [Taliban’s] ban on opium cultivation is enforced and sustained, it could have a significant impact on heroin availability in Europe during 2024 or 2025.”

“A previous short-lived ban on opium production in Afghanistan around 2001 led to heroin shortages in Europe that have been associated with long-term changes in patterns of opioid consumption in some countries,” Groshkova adds. “For example, fentanyl appeared on the Estonian drug market around this time and has been a persistent problem for the country since then.”

By 2003, fentanyl had almost completely replaced heroin in Estonia and for the next 14 years, the small Baltic nation suffered the worst overdose crisis in Europe.

Although Groshkova noted that there’s no evidence mass quantities of fentanyl are currently being manufactured in or around Europe, that could rapidly change, since the chemicals needed are already available from China.

“In Europe, there are some worrying recent signals that new synthetic opioids may be causing more harm,” says Groshkova.

“The available information from seizures, syringe residues and toxicological findings reported by the Baltic countries suggests an increase in availability and harm, including drug-induced deaths, during 2022 in these countries, particularly related to benzimidazole opioids and the fentanyl derivative carfentanil.”

Carfentanil, originally used for knocking out elephants, is 100 times stronger than fentanyl. According to preliminary data, the number of fatal overdoses from synthetic opioids in Estonia doubled from 2021 to 2022, while neighbouring Latvia saw a threefold rise in drug-induced deaths.

It’s early days, but the Taliban appears to be finally closing the tap on Afghanistan’s opium supply. Yet with the global demand for such drugs up 26% between 2010 and 2020, it’s quite possible that the Taliban’s war on drugs will push addicts around the world towards other, more dangerous, kinds of high.

Niko Vorobyov is the author of Dopeworld.


Build people-powered media.

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.