HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Analysis - The Heroin Trail
Pubdate: Thu, 04 Oct 2001
Source: BBC News (UK Web)
Copyright: 2001 BBC
Author: Gary Eason, BBC News Online


These Refugees Can Still Leave - So Can Smugglers

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

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.

"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 (UKP 47) a kilo then fell, so that last year 
they got about $30 (UKP 20).

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.


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.

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.


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 

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."
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