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Afghanistan sees boom in meth production as seizures of illegal drug more than double

Ben Farmer
An Afghan security force member watches four tons of illegal drugs being burnt - Xinhua / Barcroft Media

Afghanistan is seeing a boom in methamphetamine drug production, potentially providing a new revenue stream for the Taliban in a country already notorious for opium and heroin.

The United Nations said Afghan seizures of the powerful stimulant drug had increased exponentially in the past five years and then “gone off the scale” in 2019.

Taliban insurgents who are already estimated to make tens of millions a year from opium are now taxing criminal gangs making meth in Western Afghanistan.

Inventive drugs gangs have also cut their costs by starting to use a locally-grown mountain bush as an ingredient and abandoned the previous method of cooking up over-the-counter cold and flu medicines.

“Methamphetamine is something that has increased exponentially over the last years in Afghanistan,” said Mark Colhoun, of the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime.

Annual seizures of the drug had been no more than a few kilos earlier in the decade, but had reached 180kg in 2018 and have already hit 650kg in the first half of 2019.

A recent London School of Economics study of drugs labs hit by US air strikes in western Afghanistan found many were making methamphetamine as well as processing opium.

David Mansfield, author of the report, said Afghanistan had quickly developed a burgeoning methamphetamine industry, apparently with expertise from neighbouring Iran.

He said: “What's impressive is just how quickly it's taking off.”

Production is thought to have shifted from Iran, where police had tried to stamp it out, to the border regions of Western Afghanistan, which are frequently under Taliban control.

Mr Mansfield said: “A lot of the technical know-how has come from Iran. Afghans who have worked in labs in Iran, they went over for construction and ended up in a lab, ended up learning the skills, coming back and setting up shop with support in various places.”

Gangs in Iran had typically used common medicines to provide the active ingredient called pseudoephedrine. But since transplanting business to Afghanistan, they had started to use a local bush called ephedra because cold and flu remedies had become too costly. The switch to ephedra has potentially created another drug crop in western Afghanistan and the United Nations said it would begin where the bush was growing.

American and Afghan officials said meth producing labs were among 68 drug factories hit by air strikes in a May campaign to cut off funding to the insurgents.

Mr Mansfield said the international coalition often greatly overestimated how much revenue the Taliban raised from taxing drug production in areas it controlled, but said insurgents appeared to be levying a flat tax on “powdah” production, whether that was heroin or meth.

Drug trafficking analysts do not know where the meth is smuggled to. Some is consumed in Afghanistan, but shipments have also been intercepted heading to Iran and Pakistan, the UN said. It is not known if it is then destined for further afield.

Mr Mansfield said: “ If this ephedra model is significantly reducing costs without having a significant effect on quality, you would expect this product to travel. It certainly seems to be produced for export.”

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