In early 2022, the farming of poppy plants was banned by the Taliban in Afghanistan. This objection was due to the fact that these plants produce opium, which is an intoxicant. Opium is used most commonly as the main ingredient in heroin. The ban has been enforced this year, many who have not complied have watched their crop be violently destroyed with sticks These crops represent some farmers' livelihoods which are now being demolished..Those found infringing on this ban have been threatened with penalties corresponding with Sharia law.
The ban on poppy plants was ordered by the Taliban’s supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, in April 2022. A Taliban spokesperson told the BBC that this decree was mandated due to the harmful effects of opium and how it contradicts with the Taliban’s religious beliefs.
Why this ban?
Afghanistan is currently being ruled by the Taliban, an extremist Muslim organisation. The Taliban’s belief system originates from the Quran. In the Quran. drugs are prohibited because of it being an intoxicant The ban was put in place to minimise the negative effects on society caused by opium addiction. As Afghanistan is the largest producer of opium plants, this will lead to a significant gap in the market. This gap will potentially lead to those that use products that originate from natural opium such as heroin turning to more harmful substitutes, which could lead to more overdose deaths.
The opium market in Afghanistan
The 2022 poppy opium crops were not penalised under this new decree, but the 2023 batch of the crop will.
The looming ban resulted in an increase in production and revenue of Opium in Afghanistan in 2022, cultivation rose by 32% and sales tripled to over $1.4 billion.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has reported at one point producing over 80% of the world’s opium as well as over 95% of Europe’s heroin originating from Afghan poppies. This ban will affect the supplies of heroin, which may lead some to consume synthetic opioids, for example, fentanyl, due to the coming shortage.
Synthetic opioids and their dangers
The gap in the market will increase the demand for synthetic opioids which can lead to higher rates of overdoses. Synthetic opioids are opioids that have been synthesised in a laboratory and designed to target the same receptors in the brain as natural opioids. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that has been able to take over drug markets. Fentanyl has been able to do this because of how simple it is to lace with other drugs. This has been a deadly but effective way for producers to maximise their profits. Fentanyl can be over 50 times stronger than natural heroin, presenting a serious risk which could lead to an unprecedented rise in drug-related deaths in Europe due to the shortage.
The United States has been facing a problem with fentanyl as well as other synthetic opioids. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported 109,680 deaths due to fentanyl in 2022 alone. The fentanyl crisis has not yet reached Europe. However, due to the projected loss in supply of heroin, this may change.
The effects of this ban and the decreased supply of opium will not be felt for at least a year as, on average, it takes between a year and 18 months for the poppy opium plant harvests to reach European markets.This will give European governments time to prepare for this decrease in supply and try and reduce negative externalities.
The last ban and its consequences
The effects could be compared to those that took place during the prior ban of the plant over twenty years ago. A poppy opium plantation ban was decreed on July 28 2000, by the Taliban in Afghanistan. This was later reversed about a year later following the United States involvement in the country under the George W Bush government targeting terrorist activity in Afghanistan in 20001.
Following this initial ban, heroin's supply decreased, which allowed fentanyl to make its first ever introduction into the European drug market. This ban and subsequent looming shortage was a key factor in Estonia’s fentanyl crisis that devastated the country between 2001 and 2017. The introduction of fentanyl in Estonia had disastrous effects on the population; 70-80% of overdose deaths between 2010-2017 (National Library of Medicine) were caused directly by fentanyl.
The crisis was able to be controlled due to government response. By 2017, the Estonian government had implemented harm reduction schemes as well as operations to shut down production. These responses led to the end of the crisis. This government response could be modelled to ease the potential rise in synthetic opioid use in Europe.
Potential consequences of the 2022 ban.
The ban on opium plantations will not be felt for at least a year. However, this shortage must be addressed or the risk of deadly synthetic opioids invading European and other markets is highly probable. As seen in the United States and in the Estonia crisis, fentanyl’s effects will result in thousands of deaths from overdoses.
National consequences for Afghanis
A large proportion of Afghanistan’s GDP originates from opium sales, this will lead to a significant weakening of the economy. It is estimated that the country receives between $1.8 and $2.7 billion, which represents 12-14% of the country's GDP (UNODC). The cultivation of the crop represents many families' livelihoods. The ban on opium poppy plantations introduced by the Taliban government will result in an impoverished nation as a whole. The ban will specifically affect those in the trade of opium in the country as they will lose their main form of income and will be severely punished if they do not comply with the ban.
The effects of the ban on the opium plantation are unknown. Heroin is a dangerous drug that has plagued many with addiction. However, the possible consequences of its reduced supply of the drug may lead to disastrous effects and many avoidable deaths due to dangerous substitutes.
Economically, the country’s decision to ban the plant may also weaken Afghanistan's economy.
This may lead many to wonder whether the ban on opium plantation is worth the potential consequences?
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