Europe should be better prepared for the prospect of methamphetamine coming from Afghanistan, according to a report by the EU drugs agency, European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA).
Evidence suggests that large quantities of low-cost methamphetamine are manufactured in specialised facilities in Afghanistan by more skilled operators, known as ‘cooks’.
The “full extent of ephedrine and methamphetamine production in Afghanistan remains unknown, but it could be considerable”, the report said.
EMCDDA research points to the availability of ‘cheap Afghan meth’ across consumer markets in Iran at very low retail prices.
Seizure data suggest that Afghan ephedrine and methamphetamine (sometimes in liquid form) are potentially being reprocessed in Iran, raising concern that the phenomenon is growing and has the potential to spread.
While the availability of Afghan-origin methamphetamine in regional and international markets is difficult to estimate, chemical profiling by law enforcement agencies suggests that it may have become available in consumer markets as far afield as East Africa and Australia.
Production inside Europe (located mostly in the Netherlands and Czech Republic) seems to be more than sufficient to satisfy the current demand among European consumers. But the production of comparatively cheap and pure methamphetamine in Afghanistan remains a significant threat, as the drug could enter the European market via the well-established trafficking routes for smuggling Afghan heroin (notably the Balkan route via Iran and Turkey).
Afghan-origin methamphetamine is seen to be making its way to the other consumer markets (e.g. in East and Southern Africa, South-East Asia and Oceania).
Iran has a longer history of methamphetamine production than neighbouring Afghanistan but there are signs that it is shifting from a producer to a transit nation.
Since 2010, methamphetamine producers in Iran have faced growing economic, regulatory and law-enforcement pressures that have limited domestic production and led to a growing reliance on cheaper imports from Afghanistan.
The Iranian authorities are reported to have played a key part in making domestic production riskier and less profitable, the report said.
Seizures of methamphetamine in the EU have increased in the last 10 years, although not to the levels observed elsewhere in the world.
The current market for methamphetamine in Europe is much smaller than for other stimulants (e.g. cocaine and MDMA), with consumption restricted to specific countries, regions or user groups.
“Nonetheless, there are concerns that interest in the drug may be growing and that it could have the potential to play a greater role in Europe’s future drugs problem,” the report said.
The expansion of the methamphetamine industry in Afghanistan in recent years follows the realisation by Afghan drug traders that ephedra plants (growing wild for centuries in the country’s central highlands) are a natural source of ephedrine, a precursor chemical used to make methamphetamine.
The report explains that methamphetamine production was already occurring in the country between 2013 and 2017, but was based on ephedrine extracted from imported medicines (e.g. cough syrups) in a costly process requiring specialised chemists.
The country’s move into large-scale ephedra-based methamphetamine production from 2017 appears to have occurred relatively rapidly, resulting in a ‘thriving cottage industry’ for the extraction of ephedrine from dried ephedra crops by relatively low-skilled workers.
(Sanjeev Sharma can be reached at Sanjeev.firstname.lastname@example.org)