Afghanistan, Vietnam, Heroin by mattsteinglass
July 29, 2008, 3:25 pm
Filed under: Drugs

As anyone who’s seen American Gangster “knows”, US troops in Vietnam all started shooting heroin, thereby creating the Golden Triangle — then the world’s largest opium-poppy cultivation zone, in Laos, Thailand and Burma. After the war the Golden Triangle spread to include parts of Vietnam itself, which had about 18,000 hectares of opium poppies under cultivation in 1991, which would make it the third-largest cultivator in the world today. (There are no more opium poppies cultivated in Vietnam; an increasingly efficient government has stamped the practice out.) Today, as we all know from reading the NY Times Magazine, the world’s biggest opium poppy and heroin producer is Afghanistan, with Burma coming in a distant second. According to the UN Office of Drug Control’s 2007 report, Afghanistan produced 8200 metric tons of opium in 2007, Burma 460 tons. The summary of production increases in 2007 reads like some bizarre parody of a glowing World Bank development report:

Opium production reaches a new record high Global opium production reached record levels in 2007: led by production in Afghanistan, it increased for a second year in a row to 8,870 mt. This is by far the highest annual level of production recorded in the last two decades and roughly double the annual average for that period. This is related to the shift in cultivation from Myanmar to Afghanistan which has taken place over the same period. In the latter country, opium farmers achieve more than two and a half times the per hectare yield. In 2007, Afghanistan alone accounted for 92% of global production, producing 8,200 mt of opium at an average yield of 42.5 kg/ha. In Myanmar, opium production increased by 46% from 315 mt to 460 mt due to the combined effects of cultivation increases and higher yields. However, opium production in Myanmar represented only 5% of global production in 2007. The total farmgate value of opium production in Afghanistan rose 32% to US$1 billion dollars in 2007 on the strength of the enormous increase in production.

So, who’s buying all this heroin? The report says that in the US in 2007, heroin cost $87.70 a gram wholesale, $172 a gram retail. (That’s a huge drop in the wholesale/retail spread from 2006. What’s going on there? Just-in-time delivery practices by big-box heroin retailers?) In Europe, meanwhile, heroin was going for just $67.10 a gram retail or $30.70 a gram wholesale. Prices have been low and steady in Europe and the US for years after hitting highs in the early ’90s.

What does that price differential portend for drug user populations? In North America users are stable at 0.4% of the population. And…ah! In Europe, user are 0.7% of the population. And so we see that tolerant European drug policies allow low prices, which means more drug abuse…oh, no, wait. Actually, opiate use rates in Western Europe, which includes drug-tolerant Switzerland, the Netherlands, etc., are just 0.5%, not much different from the US, especially considering how much cheaper the drug is. So where are all those drug users?

In the (non-tolerant) East. Opiate users in Eastern Europe, including Russia, average 1% of the population. In Russia it’s about 1.4% of the population. So that’s who’s buying Afghanistan’s dope. Russia, of course, has a drug policy that’s based entirely on interdiction and on getting addicts to “kick”; little harm reduction (some clean needles), no methadone. Oh well. In a piquante fashion, of course, one could write a lyrical drug-trade movie (“Russian Gangster”, say) illustrating how Russia’s heroin injection problem got started when…it invaded Afghanistan, and its troops started shooting up. And so it all comes around in circles again.

Except that as Afghanistan’s drug production has shot up over the past few years, Russia’s drug use population has remained largely stable. So who’s buying all the extra heroin? According to UNODC, it’s new heroin users in Pakistan, India, Iran and the rest of South and Southwest Asia. It’s actually being consumed locally. The large country with the single biggest opiate abuse problem in the world? Iran, where 2.4% of the population uses opium in one form or another each year — six times the rate in the US.


2 Comments so far
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Yes there were a few thousand addicts who got they new habit while fighting in Afganistan. However the reason for millions new russian heroin addicts is pourous borders,corrupted police and high profit from drug traffiking in the country where average monthly income is about $300

Comment by andrei

If heroin cost less, like $10 a gram, there would be less people stealing to fun their habit.

Comment by Gavin

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