Milky fluid is seeping from cuts in the unripe poppy seed pod. After it’s air-dried, it becomes opium or through certain processes and the addition of chemicals the painkiller morphine or the known drug heroin. It is a profitable plant already being used for business purposes in the past by the British East India Company which produced opium in India with harmful consequences. A trade which led to the Opium War in China.

The main producer of poppy with an increasing cultivation -distancing by far all the other countries- is Afghanistan nowadays. According to the Afghanistan Opium Survey 2018 of the United Nations´ Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), published in July 2019, the gross value of the Afghan opiate economy was estimated to be US$ 1.2-2.2 billion in 2018, being worth between 6 to 11 per cent of the GDP.

Poppyhead (Photo credit: Iva Balk)

The ongoing instability of Afghanistan- with a lack of government control, security and rule of law, as well as with corruption- has been identified to be main drivers of the illicit opium cultivation. Many anti-governmental-groups like the Taliban, the Islamic State and others are destabilizing the infrastructure which in turn reduced the general economic growth of the country in South-Central Asia.

In 2018, a third of all headmen reported that their villages were not under control of the government which opened the gate for illegal business. More than half of the village headmen said taxes on the poppy trade were being paid to anti-government groups which became one of their important money sources.

The opium cultivation in 2018 was at its second highest level since the beginnings of recordings, despite decreasing prices and a seemingly saturated opium market. In this economic crisis many people had become dependent on the income from opium poppy to sustain their livelihoods.

The highest level of cultivation was in the year 2017. In 2018 it decreased because the rain and snowfall was well below average in much of Afghanistan during October 2017 and May 2018 which is the wet season. The drought showed its full impact with a food crisis and emergency. Millions of people had to leave their home and required life-saving assistance. In the south of the country, where most of the poppy crops are grown, farmers were able to avoid the worst effects of the drought by using irrigation systems.

44 per cent of the farmers’ income comes from opium over the year. It is almost twice as much as wages for other farming-related jobs, and substantially more than construction workers´ salaries. Farmers employed roughly 190,700 full-time workers to help them weed and harvest opium poppy. Most of them sell the poppy to local markets which signals that the opium trade is becoming increasingly accepted in rural Afghanistan.

Since 2001 the US-army operations against drug trafficking in Afghanistan cost $8.9 billion – part of the longest war in US history.

“Without drugs, this war would have been long over,” President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan said. “The heroin is a very important driver of this war.”

The “One Belt, One Road initiative” that the Chinese government is rapidly pushing forward which is providing global economic opportunities, could well include new drug markets and supply chains between Asia, Africa and Europe.

The question comes up: what are good and adequate solutions for coordinated national and regionally responses to minimize harm?

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