The New Dealer on the Block
Researching the Rise of Afghan Methamphetamine and its Penetration of International Markets
The use of largescale quantitative surveys for researching the illicit drugs trade, and indeed other illegal activities, have a limited value, particularly in Fragile and Conflict Affected States (FCAS). Illegality and insecurity, as well as the absence of even the most basic of demographic data in most of the primary drug producing countries, renders these surveys subject to significant bias. The use of predetermined and closed questions, often shaped by a moralistic and westernized understanding of how individuals and communities engage with illegality, further limit the value of the information collected. Rather, research on illicit activities requires pragmatism and a flexible and iterative design that combines a variety of different research methods. High resolution satellite imagery is particularly valuable for better understanding the physical geography of a remote and insecure area, identifying potential research sites, measuring socio-economic, political and environmental change once unique visual signatures are understood, and, finally, extrapolating findings across a wider geographic area.
Here David Mansfield, Alexander Soderholm and Nicholas Thomson document how this flexible research method, in partnership with Alcis, charted Afghanistan's entry into low-cost and high-quality methamphetamine production with a global outreach.
Afghanistan: A Cottage Industry on an Industrial Scale?
About two years ago, in September 2018, we first came across what were plastic barrels containing what can only be described as a thick unpleasant looking liquid - a green goo. There were about ten of these barrels in a mud building that operated as a drug lab in the district of Bakwa in southwest Afghanistan. The surrounding area had been the target of a number of air strikes as part of the campaign by US and Afghan military forces to destroy heroin labs, and we happened to be examining the impact of this effort.
This lab was still standing, and aside from heroin processing it showed evidence of methamphetamine production. Hundreds of bottles of decongestants were scattered on the ground outside the compound, along with packets of iodine and a number of glass flasks, more commonly seen in a chemistry lab than in the kind of compounds used to produce morphine and heroin base in Afghanistan.
What stood out when reviewing the photographs of the lab was the buckets of thick green liquid. Conversations with colleagues indicated that this was "oman", a crop that grew wild in the central highlands, being soaked in water before being used in the production of methamphetamine.
It was explained that the shift from over-the-counter medicines to what was undoubtedly ephedra - a source of ephedrine used in the making of methamphetamine - was the decision of the lab owners in southwest Afghanistan who reported losing money on their sales.
As far as they were concerned the cost of shipping bottles of decongestants from neighbouring Pakistan just didn't add up, and they were losing money in the face of rapidly falling methamphetamine prices in Iran, where it was believed much of the final product from Afghanistan was being shipped.
As a research team we met these reports with some degree of disbelief but thought it worth following up on. From the buckets of green goo, our attention shifted to the mountains where the crop grew.
We reached out to contacts and heard that ephedra, known as oman in some areas and ‘Bandak’ in others, grew across the central highlands, including the provinces of Ghor, upper Helmand, Uruzgan, Ghazni, Wardak and even the eastern parts of Herat, as well as Badakhshan and Nangarhar.
But where to start?
In early April 2019 with the winter snow still firmly in place in areas like Baghrani in upper Helmand and much of southern Ghor, the first round of fieldwork focused on Ghazni which was more accessible.
To be honest, we drew a bit of blank in the mountains of Ghazni. Not because the crop was not grown and harvested, but because it was not the harvest season and therefore the area was not awash with activity. Instead, we learned more about the ephedra crop, its agronomics, its harvest, and its move in 2018 from a crop with medicinal uses and a limited market to a vibrant cash crop that fetched high prices and which traders would travel from Helmand and Farah to purchase.
Knowing more about the crop meant we could better target our efforts later in 2019 during the second round of fieldwork in the province of Ghor, just to the north of what we had now learned were the methamphetamine producing provinces of Farah and Helmand. With the harvest in full swing and knowing that Ghor was a mature market that had been the source of ephedra for the methamphetamine labs in southwestern Afghanistan for a couple of years, the fieldwork in the district of Taywara was more instructive.
We not only talked to numerous farmers in villages that sat at the foot of the mountains and who took the arduous journey to harvest the crop, but also the traders who camped out in the area for the duration of the harvest season, and a multitude of truckers - both local and from the southwest - who moved up and down the precipitous mountain roads transporting the ephedra crop from a number of different districts in Ghor to the primary market in the deserts of Bakwa in the province of Farah. Combining these two rounds of fieldwork with high resolution satellite imagery told us this was no nascent industry.
Combining these two rounds of fieldwork with high resolution satellite imagery told us this was no nascent industry. GPS-enabled photography, imagery and a review of the agronomy told us that the ephedra crop could potentially grow in an area of around 192,000 square kilometres across Afghanistan.
Moreover, the number of provinces and districts where we had reports of ephedra being harvested, and seen in situ, suggested the crop was being used widely in the production of methamphetamine in Afghanistan. The marketing network - with traders and truckers travelling from the southwest to provinces like Ghazni and the relatively mature markets in Ghor, indicated that there was significant demand for the crop, much of it emanating from the province of Farah, as well as Helmand, particularly the border town of Baramchar.
In fact, high resolution imagery showed Abdul Wadood bazaar in the district of Bakwa in Farah having grown dramatically over an 18-month period, a place that we had learned from various discussions was one of the primary markets for the ephedra crop; a finding confirmed by ground photography showing piles of milled and dried ephedra on open land. The dramatic fall in prices for ephedra and methamphetamine, along with investigations by others in the east of the country, all indicated that our evidence that Afghanistan was seeing a rapid growth in methamphetamine production could not be dismissed as misplaced, or viewed as some kind of outlier.
Our next step was to move beyond the crop and its market and examine the production of methamphetamine. Our own work with colleagues in Iran had already revealed market links between the two countries, and some evidence of knowledge sharing of methamphetamine processing between Iranians and lab owners in Afghanistan, including Afghan migrants who had worked in Iranian methamphetamine labs but who returned to Afghanistan and brought their knowledge and skills with them. We wanted to learn more about the economics of production - if any money could be made in the face of dramatically falling prices both locally and in Iran - and just how widespread processing had become in the southwest of Afghanistan. We were particularly troubled by the range of indicators that suggested that Afghan methamphetamine production was significant, but there appeared to be no seizures further downstream.
We decided that the best way to understand methamphetamine production and its scale was to talk with those involved in producing the drug, and, as with all our work, use imagery to inform the design and verification of the fieldwork. This latest round of research revealed the level of methamphetamine production was much more extensive than we ever anticipated.
Discussions with the chemists, or ‘cooks’ as they are known locally, showed a two-tiered structure: one where a cottage industry had developed in the production of ephedrine from ephedra, and another where methamphetamine was produced from ephedrine by a smaller number of specialists. It was argued that the move away from the use of over-the-counter medicines to ephedra had made processing much simpler, and those involved reported a dramatic uptick in ephedrine production in the area. Ephedrine, or "F", production was largely presented as just another economic activity for those living in the area undertaken alongside wheat cultivation, livestock and opium production.
It was said that with a relatively small investment it was possible to set up a makeshift ephedrine lab in an abandoned compound, or even an old building in the back of your own residence. The process was easy to learn, and based on the price of ephedra in Abdul Wadood bazaar, the cost of other inputs, and the market price for "F", detailed analysis showed that it was possible for lab owners to make around US$ 30 in net profit from each kilogram of ephedrine produced.
The production of methamphetamine was a completely different matter. It was more costly, had a higher skill requirement and was time consuming. Those that processed "F" into methamphetamine were much more highly regarded and said to be far fewer in number. These individuals were more prized, given payments based on their output rather than a simple day rate (which was the case for those making ephedrine), and the methamphetamine cooks renowned for the quality of their product were given further incentives to work with a particular lab owner - good food, clothes and other gifts - as part of the branding.
Methamphetamine production was also less messy than making ephedrine. While turning dried ephedra into "F" involved large amounts of inputs and created a lot of liquid and solid waste, processing ephedrine into methamphetamine is a relatively clean affair, using much smaller amounts of inputs and with none of the by-products. Furthermore, the entire process seemed to take place inside the buildings of the compound and away from the dust, not an easy endeavour in the deserts of southwest Afghanistan.
For us as a team this relative cleanliness in the production of methamphetamine presented a problem as it meant that it was hard to distinguish between a typical household compound and a methamphetamine lab when using high resolution satellite imagery. Given the waste and the larger scale of production, identifying ephedrine labs was much easier. Armed with a knowledge of the unique visual signatures of an ephedrine lab, colleagues set about counting labs from high resolution satellite imagery. The analysis was painstaking and involved a review of the past and current high resolution imagery of the 14,278 household compounds found in the district of Bakwa. While numerous compounds with the tell-tale signs of an ephedrine lab could be seen in the neighbouring districts of Gulistan and Khash Rud, time and resources told us we had to draw the line somewhere and keep the work within the district boundaries of Bakwa.
In total, 329 potential ephedrine labs were identified in Bakwa using satellite imagery.
Drawing on the experience of those working in the ephedrine labs - the number of days they worked, and their productivity and conversion rates - we estimated that the amount of ephedrine produced in Bakwa would be in the order of 98 tonnes per month, requiring up to 3,000 tonnes of dried ephedra. Using the same measures from the methamphetamine cooks we estimated that this amount of ephedrine would produce around 65.5 metric tons of crystal methamphetamine per month and require around 500 methamphetamine labs.
We realised that this was not a nascent or infant industry, but one that was fully grown and producing both low-cost ephedrine and methamphetamine in copious amounts.
Iran: Improving the Quality in an International Division of Labour?
Having realized the potential scale of methamphetamine production in Afghanistan we began asking ourselves the critical question of where these drugs were going. Concurrent with the fieldwork and analysis of satellite imagery, we began exploring the market conditions for meth in neighbouring Iran, which had seen a rapid escalation of domestic production and use of the drug since 2005. Studying the spread of Afghan meth presented several methodological, ethical and security challenges. As such, the work was iterative, drawing on the knowledge of trusted local informants while generating new respondents through snowball sampling. This required a high degree of pragmatism and flexibility in the research design; data generated from interviews was constantly cross verified by consulting the satellite imagery, news articles, the literature on methamphetamine use and production in Iran, and compared against findings emerging from the fieldwork in Afghanistan.
We first identified several groups of key informants. Our assumption was that each group would be able to provide insights into one or several stages of the methamphetamine trade - to ask any of them about all stages would result in the kind of speculation that is unhelpful when it comes to producing robust data. These groups included individuals involved in moving drugs (opiates and methamphetamine) across the border and through Iran, domestic methamphetamine ‘cooks’, Iranian law enforcement officers, state officials, scholars, front-line drug treatment and harm reduction providers, and street-level drug users and sellers.
While a clearer picture began to emerge of the shift in methamphetamine production from Iran to Afghanistan over the last few years, and the widespread availability of Afghan meth in Iranian drug markets, we viewed our early findings with a healthy dose of scepticism. Cross-verification of the emerging data was integral to strengthen our findings. This entailed verifying what one group of participants reported by following-up through other methods, for example by reviewing satellite imagery of locations of interest identified by informants, by linking back to the ongoing fieldwork in Afghanistan and constantly comparing data and findings, ‘testing’ our findings by presenting them to other groups of informants, and crucially, by following-up on key issues over the course of several interviews.
Slowly but steadily, we built an understanding of the factors that had facilitated the gradual shift in methamphetamine production from Iran to neighbouring countries since 2015 and onwards. This transition seemingly accelerated with the collapse of the Iranian currency following the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018 and the re-imposition of new sanctions later that year.
Among others, it came to light that Iranian cooks had both actively and tacitly facilitated the shift of methamphetamine production to Afghanistan. As one cook explained, Iranians had crossed the border and established labs on Afghan soil with the support of local networks, as setting up shop in Afghanistan was considered less risky. Furthermore, Afghan migrants, including those working in Iranian meth labs, had begun returning home in increasing numbers due to the rapidly declining value of the Iranian Rial. These individuals brought invaluable skills and experience with them when returning to their home countries, including of methamphetamine processing. Several other factors also facilitated this shift, such as more stringent regulation on over-the-counter ephedrine-containing pharmaceuticals, which meant precursors had to be diverted from the licit pharmaceutical industry or smuggled into the country – particularly across the porous parts of the Iran/Iraqi-Kurdistan border.
Since the appetite for meth in Iran has not shown any signs of abating, and in the context of large increases in the prices of drugs such as opium and heroin (largely caused by the collapse of the Iranian Rial), cheap Afghan methamphetamine has now become well-established in Iran. Between March and November 2020, Iranian authorities reported 10 metric tonnes of methamphetamine seized, 90% of which were reportedly trafficked from (and likely produced in) Afghanistan. We also found that this influx of Afghan meth had led to significant decreases in prices at both the retail and wholesale levels. The ease by which Afghan meth became established in Iranian drug markets was seemingly facilitated by the networks that already smuggle opium and heroin through the Balkan and Southern routes, for lucrative consumer markets in the region and beyond.
While Iran is a logical destination for Afghan meth owing to its large number of domestic regular meth users (estimated at 224,000 individuals currently, although there are indications that meth consumption is increasing), based on the potential scale of production in Afghanistan and Iran’s pivotal role as a transhipment point for opiates globally we realized that it was highly likely that a proportion of the meth would be bound for other consumer markets. Over the course of late-2019 and throughout 2020, reports emerged which detailed large seizures of methamphetamine from Iran, such as 160 litres of liquid methamphetamine seized in Australia (with forensic analysis conducted by Australian Federal Police determining that the meth was likely produced from ephedra, probably originating from Afghanistan).
However, a review of seizures was not sufficient in documenting the potential spread of Afghan meth, and so again we followed-up through interviews with the key informants. Meanwhile, more evidence emerged of the spread of Afghan opiates through the Southern route.
Our iterative research revealed that liquid methamphetamine and ephedrine were being seized along Afghanistan’s border with Iran – and a possible division of labour had taken place whereby Iranian meth cooks seemed to be repurposing and improving the product produced by their neighbours for international markets.
The research conducted in Iran further showcased the strengths of constantly revisiting and cross verifying our data. We viewed early findings with scepticism, and our modus operandi dictated that we needed to interview several groups of informants to establish a deeper understanding of the methamphetamine trade as a whole, and to draw on other data, including satellite imagery, to test our findings. It also required our research to bridge the divide between ‘supply’ and ‘demand’, by involving drug users, sellers, traffickers and cooks, which afforded us with a deeper understanding of changes in domestic market conditions, meth quality, prices and routes.
A Crescent Moon Rises over the Golden Triangle?
Large recent seizures of Afghan meth in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian sea, the increasing evidence of penetration into the east and southern Africa, identical markings between Sri Lanka and Indonesian meth seizures, and Australia reporting ephedra-based meth from Iran all indicate growing signs that Afghan meth is penetrating markets further afield. But does this mean we are seeing a significant regional shift in the dynamics of meth production which has for the last twenty plus years exponentially grown in the contested geography and complicated politics of northern Myanmar? Does this mean that Afghan meth and its ephedra base gives it a production cost advantage over the Golden Triangle production?
At this point it is difficult to answer with real accuracy other than to observe that methamphetamine production in northern Myanmar is split across both low-grade meth tablets (yaba), that are predominately used across countries in the Mekong Delta, and high-quality crystal methamphetamine that serves the high-end consumer markets of Asia and onwards to Japan, New Zealand and Australia. The potential cost advantage of Afghan meth and the fact that transnational organized crime syndicates are as comfortable in Pattaya, Thailand, as they are in Dubai means that should they see advantage in one product over another they will not hesitate to explore a shift in supplier. The ultimate issue for end-use markets, such as Australia, is that supply of the meth produced in the Golden Crescent merges with the Golden Triangle and creates a super ‘ice storm’ of epic proportions, offering high-quality low-cost meth to a consumer market already quite taken by the product. The population level impact on users and their societies could be profound and would challenge the most advanced of health and law enforcement systems. At this point we just don’t know, and further work is required to ascertain the potential of a merged market versus its reality.
There is a need for a more integrated and iterative approach to study the spread of Afghan meth globally. While there have been a number of major meth seizures recently in countries along the Southern trafficking route for Afghan opiates, systematic forensic testing of drug seizures is not commonplace in many locales where these seizures have been made. Forensic testing by Australian Federal Police has been key in providing evidence on increasing seizures of ephedra-based methamphetamine that very likely originated from Afghanistan and was trafficked through Iran.
By conducting iterative research in Afghanistan, Iran, and collaborating with researchers and practitioners along the meth supply chain all the way to Australia, we were able to identify the potential scale of these flows early on. Yet, there will always be gaps in our knowledge – among others we still do not know what impact Afghan meth trafficking will have on local drug markets along these trafficking chains, if there is any spill-over. Studying the diffusion of the substance in local consumer markets will provide a better understanding of whether it is of a quality and potency that consumers ‘enjoy’ using, as and such could give an indication of whether the Afghan meth is here to stay for the long run. Identifying key staging areas and entrepot and the impacts of a burgeoning trade through fieldwork and imagery would help identify societal effects in situ as well as further downstream. Overall, further research that bridges the gap between ‘supply’ and ‘demand’, as we sought to do in Afghanistan and Iran, will be integral to understanding the health and security consequences of the spread of Afghan meth globally. Solely focusing on drug seizures misses the point and lacks the nuance required to making informed policy decisions.
Conclusion: When it comes to the drugs trade ignorance is built in yet so often underplayed
Those of us who have spent decades working on the issue of illegal drugs are very used to having large gaps in our knowledge. Gaps are to be expected. After all, those growing, processing, smuggling and using illegal drugs rarely publicise their activities; prohibition has rendered such a declaration rather foolhardy. And while it is true that there are some tell-tale signs when it comes to the cultivation of some drug crops that are detectable using high resolution imagery, the production of their derivatives, and the work of smugglers, is far harder to identify with any degree of confidence. Sure, seizure data may offer some interesting insights, but this is largely from what are, let’s face it, unsuccessful business transactions; the work of the guys that got caught. The fact is even by the time these methods had been detected most of those that produce and transport drugs had probably moved on, innovated and found numerous new locations and ways to go about their business.
The combination of illegality and conflict presents particularly difficult challenges to those countering or researching illicit drug production in Fragile and Conflict Affected States, like Afghanistan, Myanmar or Colombia; here the gap in knowledge can be more of a chasm. These are countries where the challenges of the illegality of the drugs business are exacerbated by the limits of the state. Endemic corruption and inadequate capacities in areas such as forensics, satellite imagery and research methods widen the knowledge gap. Meanwhile, relying on data from a government that does not have presence across its territory is fraught with problems, not least significant bias. The absence of even the most basic demographic data renders most large-scale surveys unreliable, and the inability of those linked to the government to travel in the very areas where drugs are grown, processed and smuggled, due to the presence of armed groups, further constrains the value of the kind of official surveys that are often drawn upon as a benchmark of the scale and nature of illicit drug production. The reality is in FCAS, the areas of greatest interest to those looking to better understand the drugs issue are those hardest to reach, and where institutions like the UN and bilateral powers find it particularly hard to operate.
It is in part for these reasons - and perhaps a tendency amongst drug researchers as much as drugs law enforcement to "only find what they are looking for" - that the growth of an ephedra-based methamphetamine industry in Afghanistan went largely unnoticed by the people tasked to measure and counter it. There is also possibly an element of hubris on behalf of the drug control community believing a growth in methamphetamine production from Afghanistan couldn’t be significant, otherwise ‘we’ would know about it; and as we don't know about it, it can't be significant.
It goes to show that although possibly preeminent in your field there is always the danger that when you begin to believe that you know everything about the drugs industry, it has in fact already moved on. .
About the Authors
David Mansfield is an Independent Consultant. He has been conducting research on rural livelihoods and poppy cultivation in Afghanistan for 24 consecutive growing seasons. This research has involved over 16,000 in-depth household interviews in rural Afghanistan. David has a PhD in development studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, he is the author of A State Built on Sand: How Opium Undermined Afghanistan, and has produced more than 75 research based products on the drugs economy and rural livelihoods in Afghanistan.
Alexander Soderholm is an Independent Consultant. He holds an MSc in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies from the London School of Economics (LSE), and is undertaking his PhD at the LSE Department of Social Policy on drug policies and illicit drug flows through the Islamic Republic of Iran. He has worked in the international drug policy field since 2015 and worked on several projects for clients such as the EMCDDA, GITOC, and Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
Nicholas Thomson is a research fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Between 2000 and 2013, Nicholas was based with Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in northern Thailand researching the individual and public health implications of methamphetamine production, trafficking and use across the Mekong Sub Region. He has particular interest in how health and security sectors interface in the context of illicit drugs and infectious disease. In 2019 he led a Special Issue of the Lancet on Security and Health