Afghan opium cultivation drops by 95 per cent

Opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has fallen by 95 per cent following the Taliban’s opium ban last year, says UNODC, further fuelling fears that highly potent synthetic opioids will now fill the gap.

Poppy cultivation fell in all parts of the country, according to UNODC’s latest analysis, from 233,000 hectares to less than 11,000. As a result, opium supply has fallen from 6,200 tons last year to just 333 tons in 2023. ‘The near-total contraction of the opiate economy is expected to have far-reaching consequences,’ the agency states, warning that it ‘could spur the emergence of harmful alternatives, such as fentanyl and other synthetic opioids’.

The experience of the US demonstrates how easily cheaper and readily available alternatives can displace heroin, the report states. ‘The emergence of fentanyl and other potent synthetic opioids has shown that markets can transform; heroin shortages could lead to increased infiltration of established heroin markets with synthetic opioids, possibly increasing potency and bringing a heightened risk of overdoses.’

Opium traders are now selling off their stored opium from the record harvests in previous years, says UNODC, with heroin processing falling as a result. There has also been a surge in methamphetamine production and trafficking in the region, it adds (

‘As Afghanistan has long been the leading global producer of opium poppy for illegal opiate markets, there is considerable interest in possible downstream effects in the availability of heroin and opium related to a sharp contraction in opium production,’ says the document. ‘An examination of seizures recorded in and around Afghanistan shows that opium seizures are increasing while heroin seizures are declining. Continued opium seizures throughout 2022 and well into 2023 suggest existing opium stocks built up from recent productive years’ harvests are being liquidated.’

UNOCD is also calling for urgent humanitarian assistance, with farmers’ income falling by more than 90 per cent and more than 80 per cent of the population depending on agriculture for their livelihoods. ‘This presents a real opportunity to build towards long-term results against the illicit opium market and the damage it causes both locally and globally,’ said UNODC executive director Ghada Waly. ‘At the same time, there are important consequences and risks that need to be addressed for an outcome that is ultimately positive and sustainable, especially for the people of Afghanistan.’

 Afghanistan opium survey 2023 available here

Related articles:

(Features, November 2023): Stayin’ Alive, Clear messaging on the new family of synthetic opioids, known as nitazenes.

(News, September 2023): Significant shift in Afghanistan’s drug market, with ‘surging’ levels of methamphetamine production, according to a new UNODC report.

(Features, June 2017): Meet the Fentanyls, a guide to the fentanyl family by Kevin Flemen.

(News, August 2023): Better utilisation of data and data sharing, including early warning systems, is needed to address the escalating drug crisis in the UK

(Partner Updates, September 2023): Release, alongside EuroNPUD and other drug treatment service colleagues in the UK, have produced harm reduction advice on nitazenes.

(News, January 2023): Fentanyl behind 80% increase in New York’s overdose deaths

Search the DDN archive for more on opium production, nitazenes, fentanyl and synthetic opioids.

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