Losing the War on Heroin: Poppy Production Soars in Afghanistan
Policy + Politics

Losing the War on Heroin: Poppy Production Soars in Afghanistan

America is losing a war in Afghanistan, and the casualties are on the streets at home.

With a heroin epidemic killing more than 10,000 Americans a year, a new UN report says the production of opium – the raw material of heroin – is up 43 percent in 2016 in Afghanistan.

Related: The US War on Drugs in Afghanistan Is an $8 Billion Failure

While the statistics cited by the United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime, the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and other sources are inconsistent, all agree that Afghanistan is by far the biggest grower of poppies in the world – a crop that accounts for 80 percent to 95 percent of the opium produced globally.

The UN says the area under opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan is now about 497,000 acres, up 10 percent from last year, but the “most important driver” of increased production is higher yield per acre.

When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001 after 9/11 because it was providing a safe haven for al Qaeda, the radical Islamic group that perpetrated the attacks, poppy production in areas controlled by the Taliban had been declared un-Islamic and almost rooted out.

In recent years, however, the Taliban has regained ground and influence in part because it is being fueled by money from the growers and drug traffickers it now protects. And government officials in Kabul also profit from the drug trade.

“In Afghanistan, there is a symbiotic relationship between narco-traffickers and the insurgency, as narcotics traffickers provide revenue and arms to the insurgency, while insurgents provide protection to growers and traffickers to prevent the government from interfering with their activities,” the ONDCP says on its website. “Further, drug-related corruption continues to undercut international reconstruction efforts and good governance, as government officials abuse their positions by benefiting financially from the drug trade.”

Related: The Most Corrupt Countries in the World Include Iraq, Afghanistan

The UN report says that while billions have been spent in Afghanistan over the past decade to encourage farmers to abandon opium poppies in favors of crops such as wheat, fruit and saffron, “many of those efforts have failed.”

Even before the majority of foreign combat troops were pulled out of Afghanistan in 2014, the reach of Taliban was growing, and it now controls more territory than at any time since 2001, according to Military Times.

Its resurgence coincides with a dramatic increase in heroin overdoses in the U.S. A March 2015 report from the National Center for Health Statistics says that from 2010 to 2013, heroin deaths almost tripled, with the biggest increases in the Midwest. In one Ohio county, heroin deaths rose 225 percent from 2011 to 2015, The Washington Post reports.

Much of the heroin flowing into the U.S., including new more refined forms that can be smoked or snorted, comes from or through Mexico, according to PolitiFact. But while opium growing is up 50 percent in Mexico, according to a New York Times story from 2015, Afghanistan remains the biggest global source of the raw material from which heroin is derived.

Last March, an official of the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board said Canada is becoming one of the “areas of greatest reception” for Afghan heroin, according to Business Insider. Afghan exporters also have their eyes on the U.S., where use of the drug is rising.