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Thursday, 4 October, 2001, 22:25 GMT 23:25 UK
Analysis: The heroin trail
refugees fleeing Afghanistan
These refugees can still leave - so can smugglers
By BBC News Online's Gary Eason

H, smack, junk, joy powder, the white stuff - most of it starts its illicit journey on the plains of Afghanistan.


The arms the Taleban are buying today are paid for with the lives of young British people

Tony Blair
Heroin is synthesised from morphine, one of the main constituents of the sap of papaver somniferum - the opium poppy.

Afghanistan has long been a big producer of the poppy, which flourishes in the "Golden Crescent" that also takes in Iran and Pakistan.

The United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) estimates that last year, Afghanistan produced 3,276 tonnes of opium, out of a worldwide total of 4,691 tonnes.

Production there has almost tripled since 1988, when Afghanistan accounted for about half the global total.

Taleban guns

The UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said on Tuesday: "The biggest drugs hoard in the world is in Afghanistan, controlled by the Taleban. Ninety per cent of the heroin on British streets originates in Afghanistan.

heroin seizure
Drug seizures soared in 1999 along with production
"The arms the Taleban are buying today are paid for with the lives of young British people buying their drugs on British streets.

"That is another part of their regime that we should seek to destroy."

Under pressure from the outside world, the Taleban authorities passed an edict in 1997 declaring opium production un-Islamic.

This appeared to have little practical effect. In 1999 there was a bumper harvest - estimated at 4,565 tonnes.

Drought impact

The UNDCP's regional representative based in Islamabad, Bernard Frahi, said the area under cultivation that year went up by 43%.

The yield has fallen since because of the ongoing drought in the region - opium poppies prefer moist soil, so irrigation is important.

Weather conditions generally have more to do with the amount being produced around the world than any intervention by government agencies.

In line with the boom in supply, the price farmers could get for their crop peaked in 1997 at about $70 (47) a kilo then fell, so that last year they got about $30 (20).

heroin factory
Makeshift factories synthesise the heroin from opium sap
Mr Frahi said the Taleban had benefited financially because they imposed a 10% tax on all crops - opium included.

However, the Taleban deny that taxes on opium bring in huge amounts of money to fund their military activities.

Cultivation is concentrated in relatively few districts.

Of the 7,541 villages the UNDCP surveyed last year, just over 91% were in Taleban-controlled areas, the others being under the control of the opposition Northern Alliance.

In many areas farmers it spoke to said that - contrary to official policy - there had been no attempts to eradicate opium crops.

In the past year there appears to have been a more effective clampdown - but observers say that coincided with the continued drought and besides, a huge stockpile was built up in 1999.

Trafficking

The opium is turned into heroin in factories which might be little more than shacks. Often it is done in or near the areas of production because the heroin is less bulky than opium and therefore easier to smuggle.

And smuggling is big business in the region - the most lucrative ultimate destination being Western Europe.

DEA's Asa Hutchinson
Asa Hutchinson: "Potential source of funding for Bin Laden"
Along Iran's border with Afghanistan, Iranian patrols are regularly involved in clashes with well-armed gangs of drug traffickers.

Thanks in part to the greater enforcement effort in Iran - which accounts for almost half the world's seizures - more of the heroin now goes out to the north, through the former Soviet republics.

The Border Guards Service in Tajikistan on Thursday reported that it had had almost 50 clashes with armed smugglers this year.

Its units opened fire on 80 occasions. Seizures of drugs included just over two tonnes of heroin - but UN officials estimate this is only a small fraction of what gets through.

Dumping

The immediate effect of the targeting of Osama Bin Laden following the 11 September attacks in the US was that the Taleban appeared to be getting rid of the heroin stockpile, according to American officials.

Asa Hutchinson, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, told a US House of Representatives sub-committee on Wednesday that the opium price in the region had plummeted from $746 a kilo to $95 immediately after the attacks. It had since risen again to $429.

Mr Hutchinson produced a slide of a handwritten document which he said was a receipt that Taleban tax collectors had given to a drugs trafficker, acknowledging that customs duties had been paid on a four kilogram shipment.

He said that the rate of "tax" varied.

"It is institutionalised, but it is not a standardised system of taxation."

But there are conflicting accounts of how much this money benefits Bin Laden's al-Qaeda organisation.

William Bach, a State Department counter-narcotics official, said drug trafficking "just doesn't seem to be the major resource for al-Qaeda".

However, Rachel Ehrenfeld, director of the Centre for the Study of Corruption in New York, said: "They are selling it in Russia and Europe.

"It's the main source of terrorism funding, and they are using legitimate sources to cover it up - groceries, fruit stands, garages."

Effect on the street

Ironically it might not be fluctuations in the amount or price of opium at its source that has the greatest impact on what heroin costs an addict.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Lindesmith Center Drug Policy Foundation in America, said tighter border checks introduced since 11 September to combat terrorism had led to reports of a rise in the price of heroin.

Whether that was due to a genuine shortage or profiteering was not clear - but certainly even legitimate commerce was being hampered.

His concern was that there was a long history of intensified controls leading producers to turn to less bulky products - as in the move from opium to heroin itself in the last century.

"So the real fear right now in some places is that we have had a favourable trend, with marijuana substituting for crack and heroin, and this could be reversed," he said.

In addition, the general sense of confusion and fear that had followed the attacks was a climate in which people tended to start using more drugs and taking more risks - so HIV and the rate of overdose might rise.

"And if the price goes up, people shift from less efficient means of taking it, such as smoking or snorting, to more direct means - and that means needles, injecting."

See also:

30 Sep 01 | South Asia
West fears heroin flood
15 Sep 00 | South Asia
Drought hits opium output
14 Jun 00 | South Asia
The Taleban's drug dividend
09 May 98 | From Our Own Correspondent
Afghanistan's opium harvest
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