Authorities warn that Afghan meth could penetrate the European market due to its low price and the availability of pre-existing trafficking routes used to smuggle heroin.
Europe needs to be “better prepared” for the threat posed by methamphetamine from Afghanistan, according to a new report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA).
While meth consumption in Europe appears to be small and largely satisfied by regional production, there is a risk that Afghan meth could penetrate the European market due to its low price and the availability of established trafficking routes used to smuggle heroin.
“We need to get ready,” said Andrew Cunningham, head of drug markets, crime and supply reduction at the EMCDDA. There is a “combination of factors” that makes the threat to Europe “quite high”, he told TRT World.
The Afghan product is “extremely cheap, much cheaper than the meth produced in Europe,” according to Cunningham. And problem meth use seems to have increased during the pandemic, elevating demand.
The Netherlands and Czech Republic are the major continental producers, but most of their meth is exported to other regions such as Asia and Oceania. Large drug labs have emerged in Europe, sometimes run in partnership with Mexican cartels.
Afghanistan has historically been known as a producer of opiates. From 2015-2020 it was the source of 83 percent of the world’s opium, according to the UN, and accounts for the vast majority of European heroin.
Iran was the big regional meth producer until tighter regulation of precursor chemicals and falling prices caused by overproduction suppressed domestic supply, compounded by a collapse in the Iranian currency that made imported medicines more expensive.
Production therefore shifted across the border. Since 2017, Afghanistan started to make increasing quantities of methamphetamine and ephedrine manufactured at low cost from a local plant, ephedra, which grows in abundance in the central highlands.
One district in Farah province could potentially produce 98 tonnes of ephedrine a month, according to the report. A separate study identified 148 ephedrine labs in Nimroz province. Further labs have been reported in Helmand and Nangarhar.
Afghan producers appear to “have a distinct comparative advantage in the global meth market,” said David Mansfield, lead author of the EMCDDA report. “They are able to produce high quality meth at a fraction of the cost of other major producers”.
The big meth suppliers have traditionally been in Mexico and the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia, which comprises parts of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. But a kilo of product from Myanmar cost €2,537 ($3,000) in 2019, compared with just €237 ($275) in Afghanistan.
There are already indications that Afghan meth is entering international markets. This year, Indonesia intercepted 2.5 tonnes of meth that reportedly originated in Afghanistan. Meth seized in Australia in 2020 was tested and shown to be derived from a plant, likely ephedra.
High-quality meth has also reached Africa from Afghanistan, according to GI-TOC, travelling along an established trafficking highway via the Makran Coast and Indian Ocean, where it has been seized with heroin off the shores of Mozambique.
It is possible that Afghan meth is already moving to Europe along the so-called ‘Balkan Route’ through Iran and Turkey. The Iranian authorities claimed that 90 percent of meth seized in a six-month period in 2020 came from Afghanistan.
In Turkey, seizures of meth increased fourfold between 2019 and 2020, with a large amount from Iran. Analysis of wastewater in Istanbul in 2021 showed that meth was the second most popular drug in the city.
According to Andrew Cunningham, further forensic profiling is required to identify where the meth originated. It is possible, he said, that Afghan meth has already arrived in Europe undetected.
He also highlighted the risk posed by liquid meth, which is “more versatile” and easier to smuggle than crystals or tablets. “Increasing amounts” of meth in liquid form have been seized in Turkey, according to the report.
Understanding of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan is reduced. Western agencies departed after the Taliban takeover, creating an “information vacuum”, Cunningham said. “It’s concerning that we don’t have any eyes and ears around to see what’s going on.”
The Taliban has vowed to stamp out drug production and trafficking, as it did in 2000 during its previous regime. But many Afghans depend on narcotics to earn a living and lack opportunities in the licit economy.
Afghanistan is currently undergoing a severe economic collapse as foreign aid evaporates. Sanctions could further exacerbate the country’s woes by cutting it off from the global financial system. Banning drugs may therefore prove impossible.
“It is a policy that is not economically sustainable under existing financial and structural pressures in Afghanistan," said Caroline Rose, Senior Analyst and Head of the Power Vacuums Program at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy.
Trafficking from Afghanistan appears to continue. Authorities in the Indian state of Gujarat recently seized almost three tonnes of Afghan heroin concealed in talcum that was routed through the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.