Economy & Development

Local Drug Markets Normalised, More Mass Treatment for Addicts, a Ministry Dissolved: A look at recent drug trends


A labourer leaves a poppy field after his morning's work in Nad Ali district, Helmand Province. The new UNODC report heard from ‘lancers’, those who harvest the poppy, bringing new insights into Afghanistan's drug economy. Photo: Andrew Quilty, 2017.

A labourer leaves a poppy field after his morning's work in Nad Ali district, Helmand Province. The new UNODC report heard from ‘lancers’, those who harvest the poppy, bringing new insights into Afghanistan's drug economy. Photo: Andrew Quilty, 2017.

Two new reports – UNODC’s annual survey and a scrutiny by SIGAR of US-funded drug treatment programmes – have revealed new trends in the drug industry in Afghanistan. Opium sales locally look to be increasingly normalised, and those with skills in harvesting the crop are doing well, even while farmers’ incomes have fallen. AAN’s Jelena Bjelica has been looking at the new reports and also brings details of the president’s little-reported dissolution of the Ministry of Counter Narcotics and his handing of its duties to the Ministry of Interior.

New UNODC annual opium survey: fresh insights from farmers and labourers

For 14 years, UNODC and the Ministry of Counter Narcotics have been producing an annual report on the opium industry in Afghanistan. Their latest, “Afghanistan Opium Survey 2018: Challenges to Sustainable Development, Peace and Security”, released on 29 July 2019, is the final report jointly produced. It has been published six months after the Ministry of Counter Narcotics was dissolved, based on presidential decree No 139 issued on 28 January 2019 (more about the ministry’s dissolution below).

The new UNODC report is an in-depth analysis of the opium economy based on data drawn from the 2018 Annual Opium Survey, a summary of which was published in November 2018. The report says that, although the area under poppy cultivation decreased by a fifth in 2018 compared to the previous year, the 263,000 hectares under cultivation in Afghanistan in 2018 was still the second largest since the UNODC began systematic monitoring in 1994.

The report sheds interesting light on those working in poppy cultivation, and on the monetary gains and losses in the opium economy as a whole. For the first time, the survey spoke to ‘lancers’, the workers who cut the poppy seed pods and collect the gum that oozes out, to better understand the extent of their personal reliance on poppy cultivation, and their work’s impact on the wider economy.

The UNODC report found that in 2018, the gross value of the opium economy decreased by almost 50 percent compared to 2017. It estimated the gross value of the opium economy to Afghanistan in 2018 was between 1.2 and 2.2 billion US dollars. This is only a fraction of the estimated value of Afghan opiates once they leave the country. A 2015 UNODC study on Afghan opiates trafficked to western Europe through the Balkans estimated the total value of illicitly-trafficked heroin and opium at 28 billion US dollars per year. The actual value of Afghan opiates to traffickers outside the country is actually higher still, as more is exported via other routes such as the northern route to Central Asia and Russia and the southern route via Pakistan to rest of the world. (Putting these figures into perspective, 28 billion US dollars is equal to the entire GDP of Afghanistan in 2018.)

In 2018, farmers encountered low yields and low prices for their crop. It brought them only 604 million US dollars, equivalent to roughly three per cent of Afghanistan’s estimated GDP. The farm-gate value of opium production, UNODC said, decreased by 56 per cent compared to 2017 (estimated then at 1.4 billion US dollars) and was at its second lowest level since 2010. However, the UNODC survey also found that roughly 20 per cent of the 2017 harvest, which was the biggest ever in the history of Afghanistan’s recorded opium yields, went unsold, some 1,800 tons out of almost 9,000 tons. This suggests, the UNODC said, “that the opium harvest is not realised in the same year but kept as raw opium for later sale.”

Wages paid out for opium poppy labour, the report said, “amounted to 270 million US dollars.” That amounts to 44 per cent of farmers’ income from opium. Some farmers – 16 per cent – also benefitted from wage labour, as they also worked as lancers on other people’s land to earn extra money. On average, lancers, said UNODC, reported working for 15 days and harvesting opium for two farmers over the course of the season (opium is collected between April and July, depending on the region, earlier in the warm south, later in the more elevated and colder regions in the north-east). The lancers “reported an average daily wage of 12 US dollars in 2018, equivalent to 170 US dollars per season,” the report said, adding that even at the lower end of the day wage, 7.7 USD, that is “almost twice as much as wages for other farming-related jobs, and substantially more than construction workers, who can expect to be paid 4.8 USD.”

All of these findings show how much opium harvesting has become a trade in itself, and that farmers who have developed lancing skills have a greater chance of earning more money during the season. The report also said that “around 20 per cent of lancers reported receiving some payments in opium – a practice that is not well documented.” It added:

Farmers run schemes under which teams of lancers could receive up to one quarter of the harvest, according to the survey. This kind of scheme was relatively widespread in the Southern region, but almost unheard of in the Eastern region.

The regional difference can also be noticed in reported incomes, said UNODC:

Reported incomes for lancers were highest in the Southern region and lowest in Eastern and Western regions, which reflects wider survey data on the availability of workers. Some 80 per cent of farmers in the Southern region said they had difficulty finding labourers, much higher than in other regions. Lancers, just like poppy farmers and other labourers, tend to use their income from opium to buy food, pay debts and settle medical bills. Few invest in property, education or other activities that could offer alternatives to poppy cultivation.

The most interesting UNODC finding, however, is that “local markets are vital centres for opium selling,” contrary to the previous understanding that traders come to villages to buy produce directly from the farmer. UNODC said that about two-thirds of opium farmers reported selling their harvest at community and district markets (by comparison, some 13 per cent of wheat farmers said they sold directly to traders and more than 80 per cent said they transported the wheat themselves to local markets). UNODC concluded:

This suggests the activities of opium farmers are converging with farmers of licit crops, at least in those areas heavily affected by opium poppy cultivation. More broadly, the open sale of opium at markets could be interpreted as a sign that the opium trade is becoming increasingly accepted in rural Afghanistan.

UNODC report also pointed out that the districts which are under control of non-state actors have strong linkages with opium production and estimated that insurgents and other non-state armed groups raise around 29 million US dollars from opium taxes. The report did not mention any estimates of money received by corrupt government officials and politicians from the opium economy.

The new SIGAR report on drug treatment

Another new report looks at what may be the main problem drugs pose to Afghanistan –  drug use. The 2015 Afghanistan National Drug Use Survey found the country had between 2.9 million to 3.6 million users of drugs, an exceptionally high per capita rate and probably one of the highest in the world (given there is no official census data for Afghanistan, it is difficult to determine exactly the prevalence rate, but even at the highest estimates of population, this would be a high per capita figure). A new report from SIGAR on drug treatment and drug demand reduction programs, published in July 2019, details how the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) spent over 50 million US dollars on 41 drug treatment projects that an intergovernmental Asia-Pacific regional organisation called the Colombo Plan and UNODC implemented from January 2013 to April 2018. SIGAR said the INL does not know the impact of this investment. These projects covered only 3 to 5 per cent of the Afghan drug users.

The SIGAR report said that INL’s reliance on the Colombo Plan and UNODC “to measure and provide information on their own respective performances” left open “to interpretation whether the Colombo Plan and UNODC did what the US government paid them to do.” The INL, the report said, “did not conduct site visits to project locations, did not maintain complete and consistent files or specific records, and could not demonstrate how they reported project implementation.” A lack of field visits by INL staff comes as no surprise, as US personnel have been limited to largely travelling by air around capital and country.

The report also questions the Afghan government’s ability to sustain INL-funded drug treatment projects, given the “attrition of qualified Afghan clinical staff providing treatment services; and the Afghan government’s approach to treating drug addiction.” The INL began a gradual transfer of 86 INL-supported and Afghan NGO-operated drug treatment centres to the Afghan government in 2014. Between 2014 and 2017, the INL stopped funding over 20 of these centres and halved the funding for the remaining 60. Despite this, the Afghan government has not made an adequate budgetary allocation for these centres until now, the SIGAR report said.

The Afghan government’s approach to drug treatment, says SIGAR, favours the use of large treatment centres that can admit up to 1,000 patients, compared to INL-funded centres that treat up to 300 patients. “In addition, the Ministry of Public Health prioritises building new treatment centres, rather than simply maintaining the INL-funded centres,” the report said. As AAN reported in 2015, the Afghan government uses police and law enforcement to round up drug addicts force them into treatment. According to the SIGAR report “the large treatment centres and forced treatment do not meet US government standards.” The reason for this is the expert opinion that forced treatment is far less likely to be successful than if users voluntarily seek treatment.

The SIGAR findings portray a grim picture of drug user treatment in Afghanistan, as well as the absence of hope in the government or foreign-funded projects for the millions of people in need of an accessible and approachable drug treatment.

The dissolution of the Ministry of Counter Narcotics

With opium production high and last year at record levels, despite years of counter-narcotic programming, it could be thought that the now-dissolved Ministry of Counter Narcotics has had a bleak record. However, it was never given a direct role in reducing supply. When the ministry was established in 2005 (following the adoption of the new counter-narcotics law), with the help of the UK government, it was tasked only with monitoring, policy making and coordinating. The president has now given these jobs to the Ministry of Interior. This role, as favoured by the UK, then the lead nation on counter-narcotics, however well thought through and based on world best practice, proved difficult to actually carry out. In Afghanistan’s political culture, where each minister prefers to be the boss in his or her own fiefdom, a ministry whose task is to get into everyone else’s business and get them to do things, has little chance of shining, or ultimately surviving. This author remembers from when she worked with UNODC how frustrated ministry staff were in their day-to-day dealings with other ministries, such as Public Health, Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock, and the Counter Narcotics Police of the Ministry of Interior. The Ministry of Counter Narcotics lacked the power to actually implement any of its various counter narcotics policies; this may be enough to explain what appears to be an unsatisfactory track record.

However, even if the counter narcotics ministry had had implementation and spending power, even the best policies were unlikely to dent an opium industry which has proved so adept at surviving and flourishing. It is unclear, then, how the Ministry of Interior will do better. It is now mandated to coordinate with the relevant government ministries and agencies, such as the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock, the Ministry of Public Health and the National Statistics and Information Organisation. It is also tasked with reviewing “the overall duties of Ministry of Counter Narcotics in the areas of drug demand reduction and treatment of addicts, alternative livelihood” and with working on the “consolidation of relevant policies and strategies related to counter narcotics and all other relevant activities.”

The decree also established a technical committee chaired by the Ministry of Interior and composed of ministries of counter narcotics, public health, agriculture, irrigation and livestock and finance, and the Administrative Office of the President. This committee is tasked with overseeing the integration of the Ministry of Counter Narcotics into the Ministry of the Interior in organisational and budgetary terms in coordination with the Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Service Commission and the Ministry of Finance within three months. AAN was told by a counter narcotics expert close to the process that this is still ongoing and that the tashkils (organisational structures and staffing) of the relevant ministries had not yet been changed.

The joint annual opium survey seems to have been, for almost a month, a point of contention between the UNODC and the president’s office. On 24 February 2019, the president therefore issued another decree (No. 60) appointing the National Statistic and Information Authority (formerly the Central Statistic’s Office – CSO) as the governmental counterpart for the survey.

Although the Ministry of Counter Narcotics (MCN) was dissolved six months ago, SIGAR’s latest quarterly report from 30 April 2019 pointed out that, according to the Afghan press, “MCN employees have been receiving salaries without having any work to do.” According to the same report the ministry is currently funded for 549 staff until September of this year. The SIGAR report, however, said that for the US government “the dissolution of the MCN will have no significant impact on current counternarcotics programs when the MCN’s responsibilities are absorbed into other ministries.” The US government is one of the biggest donors to counternarcotics, and, according to SIGAR, as of 31 March 2019, has spent around nine billion US dollars on these efforts in Afghanistan since 2002. To the Ministry of Counter Narcotics alone, the US government, through its Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), has promised 35.8 million US dollars and disbursed 27.7 million since 2008.

The presidential order to dissolve the Ministry of Counter Narcotics, as well as the findings presented in the two latest reports indicate a lack of well-thought-through counter-narcotics policy in Afghanistan, as well as basic programmes, such as treatment for drug users still significantly dependent on donors.

The striking finding of the UNODC report which shows that, in rural Afghanistan, the opium trade has become increasingly acceptable, ie that farmers sell their illicit produce in community and district markets, whereas previously, traders came directly to the farm to buy it. This is perhaps the most significant indicator of the extent to which the illicit economy has become valid in these communities and in the country.

It will be an interesting to see how well the Ministry of Interior coordinates and manages counter-narcotics efforts. The choice of this ministry is somewhat strange. It has been the police who have forcibly taking users to be treated in mass treatment centres. Moreover, as reports have detailed (see some of the sources here), repeatedly and over many years, officials in the Ministry of Interior and Afghan National Police have, themselves, been accused of involvement in the narcotics industry.

Edited by Kate Clark

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Thematic Category: Economy & Development