by Anya Daftary

 Afghanistan is not only one of the poorest countries in the world, but it is also a war zone. The key to people’s survival is Opium. Afghanistan is the world’s leading producer of illicit opium since 2001. So what makes opium so prevalent in Afghanistan? The growing of opium in Afghanistan employs over 10% of the population in Afghanistan.  Opium is the biggest source of income for most Afghanis.  Opium trade and cultivation have had a notable impact on civilians in Afghanistan. In a video report by the BBC, a local opium dealer said that they “buy the opium at the time of harvesting and then sell it once the price has gone up.” Afghanistan produces 90% of the world’s opium, 95% of Europe’s opium and 90% of Canada’s.  Afghanistan only supplies 1% of their opium of the USA as most of their supply comes from South America.

 Opium is made of the dried latex of poppy seeds. It is used for illicit drugs including heroin, codeine and morphine. Opium in its raw form can be drunk, swallowed or smoked, processed opium makes many illegal drugs including heroin. Raw opium collected from poppy pods is mixed with calcium and water and boiled. The solution is stirred vigorously and allowed to settle for hours, white/ clear parts are separated, stirred and filtered. After it dries, it turns brown and is morphine. It is mixed with chemicals until it turns black. Then it is mixed with sodium carbonate and water resulting in heroin. The heroin base is mixed and stirred with several chemical solutions, including charcoal and water.  It is filtered several times to remove charcoal and then dried to obtain white heroin hydrochloride or powdered white heroin. Opium is an extremely addictive substance and abuse of opiates leads to many dire side effects, including dilation of blood vessels, respiratory depression, constipation and sexual dysfunction. However, opium is extremely effective for pain. Heroin binds the receptors of the brain and provides a feeling of euphoria. It mimics a neurotransmitter and affects the brain’s communication system, hindering the way nerve cells send, receive, and process information. ICOS has proposed legalizing opium for medicinal purposes. Opium can be manufactured into codeine and Morphine, both legal pain killers. Opium is illegal in many places, however, they are used legally as opioids They are also are used for the treatment of diarrhoea and cough suppression and replacement therapy for opioid use disorders.

The environmental effects of growing poppies and the production of morphine are small. It causes less soil irrigation.  The final stages of morphine production, explicitly the packaging and sterilisation can lead to upto 90% of morphine’s carbon footprint, but, it is said that this is pertinent to all drugs. All opium is a low-risk drug which helps people survive in a high-risk environment! Opium uses a fifth of the water as wheat or any other traditional crop. This allows opium to grow better in the Arab desert. Despite the arable land of Afghanistan only being 12 %, 75% of the population works in agricultural labour and farming.  Many Afghans have moved away from livestock and traditional crops as growing opium gets in more money. Just imagine what happens, now that 10% of that land is being used for opium.

 Opium has created equality for men and women to work in the field and provided them with similar opportunities. In Afghanistan, addiction is considered a taboo and people do not seek treatment. Also when they do come there are very few health care facilities for addicts. The existing conflict leads to heightened levels of depression and employment. Opium is one of the greatest coping mechanisms. Addiction levels are high and still increasing.  In 2000,  a Taliban leader colluded with the UN to eradicate heroin claiming it’s using is ‘un-Islamic,’ this quickly became an effective campaign as the Taliban began enforcing bans on popping cultivation. They used threats and public prosecution which resulted in a 99% reduction in their territory. After the start of the Afghan war in 2001, the economy collapsed and the orthodox Taliban government was no longer in place.  The earlier restrictions were no longer in place. The farmers saw that opium was the easiest and most lucrative way to earn money.  A drug use survey by the UNODC in 2005 says that 0.6% of the population uses opium. 60% of the users first began using opium outside Afghanistan, particularly Iran and Pakistan. 10% of the users actually grow their own poppy.

Roughly 60% of the Taliban finances come from narcotic trades and attacking their drug trade could potentially completely weaken their entire operations. The heroin profits are used also to fund the Al-Qaeda and the idea of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and other factions of the Taliban. Growing opium is a seriously punishable offence but yet, it is so openly grown. Earlier, opium paste used to be smuggled out of the country and then refined into narcotics elsewhere. However, now, more than 50% of the opium is processed in clandestine laboratories in Afghanistan itself. This made the smuggling more efficient and even increased the profits of the Taliban and other traffickers by 20%.  The up in heroin production actually came when America was restraining their own opioid crisis. In 2017, the white house declared opioid usage a national public health emergency.  As the legislation against prescribed narcotic substance abuse increased, it was more difficult to obtain prescription opiated. Thus more people turned to illegal opium and it’s derivatives. The inability to deal with pain affects millions struggling with depression, PTSD, anxiety and many more devastating issues. A kilo of fentanyl is worth $5000 in china but, makes a profit of $15 lakhs when sold illegally, this leaves people with crushing debt. Substance abuse is treated as a criminal offence when it should be treated as an opportunity for public health.

Afghanistan is the world’s leading illicit opium producer. With increasing demands of illegal opioids the world, Afghanistan is gaining importance as they play such an integral part in the world’s supply of opium. The war-torn country being controlled by factions of the Taliban and other  Islamic states allows poppy to be grown easily and successfully be used. But the easy access and overuse of opium lead to increased crime rates, total dependency and of course, addiction. The Taliban see opium as an opportunity to grow the afghani economy resulting in money for not just for their war, but also the civilians. But let us see this in the next couple of decades. We could be left with a world of people dependent on drugs for their survival. Massive financial debts and growing corruption would reek and a slowly spreading opioid crisis could now consume the world. So, where does the war end? If the consumption of opium doesn’t end, the money supply is not going to dry up. The drug money leads to financing this war, the ammunition and increased propaganda, without this, would we still have a war?

“If they [the Taliban] want to continue the war forever, that’s their choice. If they want to come and sit and talk about peace, there is an opportunity,” ~ Abdullah Abdullah


ICOS –  International Council on Security and Development

UNODC – United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime

Works Cited

Al Jazeera. “Afghanistan: Is Peace with the Taliban Possible?” Afghanistan | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 12 Apr. 2019,

“Economy & Development.” Afghanistan Analysts Network,

“From Holy War to Opium War? A Case Study of the Opium Economy in North-Eastern Afghanistan.” Taylor & Francis,

Rowlatt, Justin. “How the US Military’s Opium War in Afghanistan Was Lost.” BBC News, BBC, 25 Apr. 2019,

“Why Is There a War in Afghanistan? The Short, Medium and Long Story.” BBC News, BBC, 8 Sept. 2019,

“Afghanistan Update.” Common Sense for Drug Policy: Afghanistan Update,

“Cannabis, Coca, & Poppy: Nature’s Addictive Plants.” DEA Museum,

“Economy & Development.” Afghanistan Analysts Network,

Glaze, John A., and Usaf. Opium and Afghanistan: Reassessing U.S. Counternarcotics Strategy,

“IRIN Focus on Drug Addiction.” The New Humanitarian, 30 Nov. 2015,

“The Global Afghan Opium Trade: a Threat Assessment / United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).” 2011, doi:10.2458/azu_acku_hv5816_g563_2011

Ray, R, et al. “Opium Abuse and Its Management: Global Scenario .” WHO,

Anya Daftary is co-head at The Ascent. Her passions include music, dance, history and writing -- specifically in the Hindustan that was. She believes strongly in the future of India and wants to help be a part of it. She hopes to make The Ascent a platform for young people to be familiar with the events and news around and have a voice