Afghans turning to crystal-meth industry to stave off starvation

A growing number of them have turned to the booming methamphetamine industry to eke out a living and stave off starvation.

Kabul: A devastating humanitarian and economic crisis has forced millions of Afghans to find new sources of income, media reports said.

A growing number of them have turned to the booming methamphetamine industry to eke out a living and stave off starvation, RFE/RL reported.

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 worsened a major humanitarian crisis and triggered an economic collapse. Western donors abruptly cut off assistance to the heavily aid-dependent country and imposed sanctions on the new, unrecognised government.

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An estimated one million Afghans have lost their jobs since the militant group seized power, joining the hundreds of thousands who were already unemployed.

Harvesters sell ephedra, a common herb locally known as ‘oman’, in local markets for around $5 per kg. The buyers, most of them middlemen, then sell it on for a profit.

The ephedra is then processed in the hundreds of meth labs that are believed to exist in Afghanistan to make meth. The drug, which has the appearance of white crystals, is then smuggled to neighbouring countries, from where it eventually reaches Europe and North America, RFE/RL reported.

The crystal-meth industry took off around 2017, when drug traffickers discovered that the native ephedra herb could be used to make ephedrine, the key ingredient in crystal meth.

For decades, Afghanistan has been the world’s biggest producer of opium. But experts say the country has also become a significant supplier of crystal meth.

The meth industry is booming despite the Taliban issuing a ban in December 2021 on the cultivation, production, and trafficking of all illicit narcotics, RFE/RL reported.

Experts say the militant group has turned a blind eye to the lucrative drug trade. The cash-strapped Taliban government, they say, is unwilling to enforce its ban because illicit narcotics remains a major source of revenue.

The militants are also unable to provide alternative livelihoods for the tens of thousands of farmers who are dependent on the drug trade for survival, experts say.

“The narcotics industry and other informal aspects of the economy appear to be serving as a safety net for the vast numbers of Afghans thrust into poverty since the Taliban takeover,” Graeme Smith, an author on Afghanistan and a senior consultant for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, told RFE/RL.

For years, the Taliban has taxed poppy farmers and been involved in the trafficking of narcotics to neighbouring countries.

The United Nations estimated that the Afghan opium trade generated some $2.7 billion of income in 2021. A 2020 report commissioned by NATO said that the Taliban earned more than $400 million from the drug industry, although some experts believe such estimates are exaggerated, RFE/RL reported.

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