Afghanistan Analysts Network – English


Thematic Dossier XXIII: Afghan drugs – opium, cannabis and meth

AAN Team 10 min

Since AAN was established ten years ago, drugs have often featured in our reporting, both directly and indirectly. Drugs and counter-narcotics efforts are not a priority for either Afghan politicians or foreign donors at this time. However, for anyone seeking to understand Afghanistan’s economy, people’s livelihoods and the political economy of elections, appointments and insurgency, they are a crucial and fundamental factor. This is why we wanted to bring together all our reporting on this subject from 2009 until today. Our dispatches look at the history of drug production and use (going back centuries), assess UNODC and other surveys, scrutinise drug use and give basic facts about the drug economy, law and policy.

Nad-e Ali poppy farmerMuhammad Omar, a poppy farmer, works his crop in Nad-e Ali district, Helmand Province. Photo: Andrew Quilty, 2017.

In an accompanying dispatch published today AAN’s Jelena Bjelica, scrutinizes two new reports, the 2018 opium survey by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the United States Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR’s) report on drug treatment in Afghanistan. She also maps out the new governance structure for combating drugs in the country, following the little-reported dissolution, six months ago, of the Ministry of Counter Narcotics on the order of the president. 

For the last ten years, Afghanistan has been producing, on average, over 5,000 tons of opium per year (this an average for the period 2008 – 2018, during which opium production was as low as 3,300 tons in 2015 and as high as 9,000 tons in 2017). That amount of opium a year can potentially yield some 360 to 610 tons of heroin of export quality (between 50 and 70 per cent purity) or 250 to 300 tons of pure heroin base. Afghanistan has consistently been the world’s main and predominant supplier of illegal opiates.

The country has also produced as much as 1,300 metric tons of hashish, the latest available data from 2012 showed.

Finally, crystal meth is now being produced, originally small-scale in ‘kitchen labs’, as AAN reported in 2015, but now, as David Mansfield and Alexander Soderholm, have detailed, on a huge scale. There has been “dramatic growth in the methamphetamine industry in Afghanistan,” they write, “fuelled by a ready supply of a homegrown ephedra crop.” Ephedrine is a substance used to produce methamphetamine and can be made from a native plant that is widespread in Afghanistan.

The scale of drug production in Afghanistan is one reason why drugs often feature in any AAN reporting. However, we also regularly produce thematic reporting about drugs. The dossier below brings together all our reporting on drugs in the last ten years in one place.

The dossier is divided into four segments.

  • In the first part, we list our cultural reports on the history of opium and cannabis production and consumption in the country. In this segment, we also include a report on crystal meth, as it provides an overview of the beginning of production of this substance in Afghanistan.
  • In the second segment, we listed all annual overviews, from the newest to the oldest, of opium cultivation and production trends in the country.
  • In the third segment, we include all our reporting on drug use in Afghanistan.
  • In the fourth segment, we put together our reporting on the drugs’ economy, basic facts, laws and policies and two interesting case studies, a socio-economic study about opium cultivation from Ghor province, and a study of the international drug trade in Nimroz province.

1. Historical overviews on drugs in Afghanistan

The Myth of ‘Afghan Black’ (1): A cultural history of cannabis cultivation and hashish production in Afghanistan

Author: Fabrizio Foschini and Jelena Bjelica

Date: 7 January 2019

The cannabis plant is indigenous to the region of which Afghanistan is a part. Throughout human history, almost every part of the plant has been used – its fibres to make clothes, its oil-rich seeds as a food, its leaves, flowers, and resin as medicine, and of course, as a psychoactive drug. Hashish, made from cannabis resin, is a potent drug. Its production in Afghanistan expanded beyond the country’s traditional markets only in the second half of the twentieth century. In this dispatch, AAN’s Jelena Bjelica and Fabrizio Foschini have collected scarce historical and contemporary literature, reports, studies, intelligence reports and other sources that contain details about the cultural history of cannabis cultivation and hashish production in Afghanistan.


The Myth of ‘Afghan Black’ (2): The cultural history of hashish consumption in Afghanistan

Author: Obaid Ali, Fabrizio Foschini and Jelena Bjelica

Date: 10 January 2019

Hashish or chars is a fairly common substance in Afghanistan. Its use, without ever attaining the levels of mass consumption that characterise other lightly-intoxicating substances in other war-torn countries, like the chewing of qat in Yemen or Somalia, for example, has remained relatively widespread. This does not mean that it is condoned by society: hashish-users, known as charsi, are stigmatised in popular discourse as lazy or even unhinged. However, the use of hashish in Afghanistan has also acquired an element of communal ritual, allowing sometimes for a different depiction of hashish-smokers to emerge, one more acceptable to dominant Afghan values and traditions. In this dispatch, AAN’s Obaid Ali, Fabrizio Foschini and Jelena Bjelica look at the cultural history of hashish in Afghanistan.


On the Cultural History of Opium – and how poppy came to Afghanistan

Author: Doris Buddenberg

Date: 11 January 2016

Mention drugs or Google the word ‘opium’ and the link to Afghanistan will never be far away. No wonder, since over the last few decades, Afghanistan has become the largest opium producer in the world. But where did opium come from, how did it spread and what are its cultural expressions? AAN co-director Thomas Ruttig and Doris Buddenberg – a member of the AAN Advisory Board, former head of UNODC Afghanistan and curator of a recent exhibition on opium – have been taking a closer look.


Afghanistan Breaking Bad: Crystal meth, a new drug on the market

Author: Jelena Bjelica

Date: 7 December 2015

The first methamphetamine seizure in Afghanistan was recorded in 2008, a minor capture of four grams in Helmand province. Now, seven years later, some 17 kilograms of methamphetamine, popularly known as ‘crystal meth’, were seized in the first ten months of 2015, in 14 out of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. The Ministry of Counter Narcotics warned about the growing number of methamphetamine users, while the Counter Narcotics Police of Afghanistan called for amendments to the current narcotics control legislation to address the low penalties for trafficking. AAN’s Jelena Bjelica visited the only forensics drugs laboratory in Afghanistan and sought to learn about this new drug phenomenon in the country.


2. Annual overviews on opium trends in the country

A Drop from Peak Opium Cultivation: The 2018 Afghanistan survey

Author: Jelena Bjelica

Date: 19 November 2018

The Afghanistan Opium Survey 2018 released today by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) shows a decrease of a fifth in the countrywide cultivation of opium compared to the previous years. The 263,000 hectares under the cultivation in Afghanistan this year was still the second-largest score for Afghanistan since the UNODC began systematic monitoring in 1994. Also, poppy weeding and harvesting still provided the equivalent of 345,000 full- time jobs into the country’s widely impoverished rural areas. AAN’s Jelena Bjelica looks at where the decrease has taken the place and the main reasons behind it.


A Low-Risk Crop in a High-Risk Environment: Annual opium survey shows Afghan poppy cultivation at a record high

Author: Jelena Bjelica

Date: 15 November 2017

More opium was grown and more opium paste produced in Afghanistan in 2017 than in any year since the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) began monitoring in 1994. The UNODC’s annual Afghanistan Opium Survey, released today, has shown that 328,000 hectares of land were used to grow poppy this year, an increase of almost a half on the previous record year (2014). Opium poppy cultivation has also expanded to more provinces which were previously poppy-free. AAN’s Jelena Bjelica has been looking at the survey.


How Neglect and Remoteness Bred Insurgency and a Poppy Boom: The story of Badghis

Author: Jelena Bjelica

Date: 22 February 2017

Badghis, a far-flung province in the west of the country, was the bad surprise in the 2016 Afghanistan Opium Survey of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. The poppy cultivation area in Badghis increased almost by 200 percent compared to 2015, contributing significantly to the overall countrywide increase of ten per cent. AAN’s Jelena Bjelica looks at Badghis as a case study of how a remote and neglected province became a breeding ground for the insurgency and an increasingly important hub for the Afghan drug economy, and at how administrative tussles – about which province (Badghis or Faryab) some key militancy-ridden districts belong to – exacerbate these issues (with input from Thomas Ruttig and Obaid Ali).


“One Year’s Result is Not a Trend”: the 2015 opium cultivation decrease

Author: Jelena Bjelica

Date: 18 November 2015

The decline (by almost a fifth) in the area of land in Afghanistan planted with opium poppy in 2015 came as a surprise to many. Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan had been on the rise since 2010, when an opium poppy blight halved opium production and triggered a subsequent hike in opium prices. However, the decline is largely due, it seems, to natural causes – crop failure in the traditional opium-growing heartland of the south – and market fluctuation, rather than anything the government or outside agencies have done. Moreover, the trend was bucked in areas of the north and west, where farmers, especially those living in insecure areas, have been putting more land under poppy cultivation. AAN’s Jelena Bjelica, who has been scrutinising the 2015 UNODC Opium Survey, reports.


Afghanistan’s Fluctuating Poppy Production: More Than a Poverty Problem

Author: Doris Buddenberg

Date: 14 May 2012

Afghanistan’s area of poppy cultivation has increased by 7 per cent compared to the last year and more provinces cultivate poppy than then. This is the gist of the annual opium survey for the country for 2012. There are no predictions about how many (thousands of) tons this will be. And the publishers – the UN and the government in Kabul – have changed their take on the drivers of poppy cultivation, away from poverty only. Doris Buddenberg(*) looks at why this is the case, at the data in general and interprets the survey’s interpretations.


Drugs, plots and stockpiles: Afghanistan’s failing poppy crop

Author: Kate Clark

Date: 20 May 2010

A mysterious disease is spreading through Afghanistan’s poppy fields: Is it a secret counter-narcotics operation or simply caused by nature? And what do ‘the markets say’? Answers are given by Kate Clark, AAN Senior Analyst.


UNODC Sees Afghan Drug Cartels Emerging – With One Eye Closed

Author: Thomas Ruttig

Date: 5 September 2009

U.N. Sees Afghan Drug Cartels Emerging’, reads a headline in the 2 September issue of the New York Times. Now the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) got it. Or did it?


3. Reports on drug use problem

 Homeless and Unwanted: How Kabul’s drug users are driven from place to place

Author: Jelena Bjelica and Qayoom Suroush

Date: 29 October 2015

The 2015 summer campaign to push drug users out from under the bridge in Pol-e Sokhta and close the ‘addict town’ there has turned into a public spectacle with groups of drug addicts being herded around by the police. Complaints by the surrounding community had forced the police to act, resulting in the partial dispersal of the drug users to the Kot-e Sangi area. They, however, continue to return. The drug users have been accused of littering, stealing and disturbing passersby, but there is no real place for them to go, as the 27 Kabul-based treatment centres struggle to accommodate the growing number of drug users in the capital. Qayoom Suroush, who previously researched the drug users of Kabul, and AAN’s Jelena Bjelica look into the problems that both the drug users and the surrounding areas still face today.


Under the Bridge: The drug addicts’ scene in Kabul

Author: Qayoom Suroush

Date: 5 August 2014

Addiction to drugs is an often underestimated phenomenon in Afghanistan. Thousands of people become addicted to drugs every year in a country that is the world’s major producer of opiates, although many of them developed the habit while living abroad as refugees. In Kabul, they concentrate in western areas of the city, living in veritable ‘townships’ under the bridge of Pul-e Sukhta and other nearby bridges. Their plight is only marginally mitigated by the assistance that state medical facilities and non-governmental organisation (NGO) programmes offer. For a majority of Kabul residents, the addicts have come to constitute a social danger or a source of shame to be ignored, reports AAN’s Qayum Suroush.


4. Basic facts, laws, policies and case studies

How to Fight the Booming Opiate Economy? Harsher and progressive laws, but to no avail

Author: Jelena Bjelica

Date: 14 June 2018

The opiate economy, as measured by the farm-gate value of opium, together with revenues from heroin production and trafficking of opiates to the Afghan borders, has become a crucial component of the Afghan economy, a recently released UNODC socio-economic survey found. This has evolved after years of increasing opium cultivation in the country. But, what are the legal means to fight this illicit economy scourge? AAN’s Jelena Bjelica (with input from Ehsan Qaane and Rohullah Sorush) looks at the counter-narcotics legal provisions and examines whether some of the legal mechanisms might restore benefits for the state from these trends in the illicit economy.


From Bad to Bombing: US counter-narcotics policies in Afghanistan

Author: Jelena Bjelica

Date: 15 January 2018

Afghanistan’s opium-driven economy has been a thorn in the side of its international backers, and a major challenge for fighting the insurgency and rebuilding a functioning state. Through the lens of the military side of counter-narcotic strategies, the United States and its international allies have pursued various counter-narcotics approaches, centred mainly on eradication and interdiction. However, none of these has resulted in fewer drugs. To the contrary, they have contributed to an expansion in the opium poppy area. The new US administration recently has decided to up the game by conducting its first-ever series of airstrikes against alleged Taleban drug labs. AAN’s Jelena Bjelica looks back at the US counter-narcotics policies in Afghanistan, to assess how effective this new approach might be.


AAN Q&A: An established industry – Basic facts about Afghanistan’s opium-driven economy

Author: Jelena Bjelica

Date: 11 July 2017

Afghanistan’s unflattering label – the world’s leading producer of opium and its derivatives, morphine and heroin – has proved hard to remove. Over the last ten years, opium cultivation has increased steadily reaching unprecedented highs, whilst eradication levels have been decreasing and the country has slowly slid into more severe poverty. To see where Afghanistan stands now, AAN’s Jelena Bjelica has scrutinised the latest socio-economic study on Afghan opiates by UNDOC and discusses the main facts that portray the country’s opium economy, identifying those who profit, how insecurity and cultivation are linked, and how gender relates to opium cultivation.


“As Easy As Growing Potatoes”: How formerly ‘poppy-free’ Ghor is at risk of becoming an important player in Afghanistan’s opium business

Author: Obaid Ali

Date: 4 November 2013

Ghor province has been considered poppy-free for a long time, but in the past two years opium production and drug trafficking have picked up sharply. With insecurity in the province on the rise, obstructing income sources and basic services, many of Ghor’s farmers migrated to neighbouring provinces like Helmand, helping in the local drug production and trade and eventually ‘importing’ this knowledge back home. In addition, Helmandi drug dealers use the opportunity to expand and develop their existing networks and smuggling routes through Ghor. In the third dispatch from this remote western province, AAN’s Obaid Ali and Christine Roehrs look at the dynamics that helped turn a previously poppy-free province into a safe haven for opium production and trade.


Bad Lieutenants in Nimruz

Author: Fabrizio Foschini

Date: 23 August 2011

Nimruz lies at one of the forgotten edges of Afghanistan, so forgotten that it is possibly the province generating the lowest amount of news per square kilometre. A most brutal and brazen episode of violence involving the police there offers AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini the occasion to report on the province and its main feature – its location as a hotspot for the international drug trade in Afghanistan.




counter-narcotics drug economy drugs Narcotics opium