There are signs that a methamphetamine industry is taking hold in Afghanistan, according to a new report published today by the EU drugs agency (EMCDDA). The paper — Emerging evidence of Afghanistan’s role as a producer and supplier of ephedrine and methamphetamine — explores whether the country, renowned for being the world’s leading opium producer, has the potential to become a significant producer of methamphetamine. The report is the result of research conducted under the EU4Monitoring Drugs (EU4MD) project, funded by the European Commission.
Today’s findings, although preliminary, are ‘worrying’, states the report. New data suggest that relatively large quantities of low-cost ephedrine (1) and methamphetamine are now produced in Afghanistan, and outputs may have the potential, in the long term, to rival the country’s production of opiates (opium, morphine, heroin).
The study is based on interviews with ephedrine and methamphetamine ‘cooks’, and other key informants, in the district of Bakwa (Farah province, south-west Afghanistan) in August 2020, as well as on documentary sources and the analysis of high-resolution satellite images.
Innovation, diversification and a move to plant-based production
The report describes how Afghan farmers have adapted to survive in the face of environmental and other challenges. It notes the important innovation, in the last three years, by some rural households in the south-west, to diversify into the production and processing of ‘significant quantities of ephedrine and methamphetamine’.
The emergence of this ‘new, and rapidly expanding, industry’ follows the realisation by Afghan drug traders that the oman (ephedra) plants — which have grown wild in the country’s central highlands for centuries — are a source of ephedrine, a precursor chemical used to make methamphetamine. Although methamphetamine production was occurring in the country between 2013 and 2017, it was relatively uncommon, low-scale and based on ephedrine extracted from medicines (e.g. cough syrups), in a costly process requiring specialised chemists.
‘The move to plant-based production in Bakwa appears to have changed this,’ says the report. It describes a two-tier system involving two types of laboratory: the first where ephedrine is extracted from ephedra plants by semi-skilled workers, and the second where methamphetamine is made from ephedrine by specialist ‘cooks’.
Many in Bakwa have now become involved in the new ‘cottage industry’ of extracting ephedrine from ephedra plants to supplement their income. As one ‘ephedrine cook’ put it: ‘This is easy, everyone can learn it’.
It is estimated that, at the time of the research, there were around 330 suspected ephedrine extraction sites, ranging from small household operations to larger factories, often run by local ephedrine traders (some of whom may also be involved in the opium trade). Once produced, the ephedrine is sold to traders from other provinces or directly to local methamphetamine production facilities, where skilled ‘methamphetamine cooks’ take over.