Afghan heroin shortage could lead to more overdose deaths – UN

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The Taliban’s crackdown on poppy cultivation in Afghanistan  could trigger a spike in overdose deaths if the global heroin lack is filled by more potent synthetic compounds, the UN has warned.

A report released on Wednesday by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) assessed the impact of a ban on opium cultivation, production, processing and trade which the Taliban reintroduced in April 2022. It came too late to affect the harvest that year, but the crackdown caused output to shrink 95% in 2023, it said.

The loss of this supply from Afghanistan, previously the world’s dominant producer of opium and heroin, was partially compensated by Myanmar, where there was a 36% increase in output. Nevertheless, global opium production fell by 74% last year, according to UN research.

Prices of opiates in Afghanistan skyrocketed last year, but the availability of old stockpiles meant that no real shortage was reported in destination markets until early 2024, the report said.

Preliminary field observations indicate that this year the supply may slightly increase, but Afghanistan is unlikely to “reach the very high production observed in the years before 2023.” If the crunch continues, the purity of heroin on the global market may decline, and the demand for substitute opiates will surge, UNODC has predicted.

This could “lead to an increase in overdoses, especially if the alternative opioids include highly potent substances such as some fentanyl analogues or Nitazenes that have already emerged in some European countries in recent years.”

Overdose deaths from Nitazenes, a group of synthetic drugs more potent than other opioids, including fentanyl, have been reported in Ireland, Britain, Estonia and Latvia, UNODC research chief Angela Me told reporters.

Narcotics production flourished in Afghanistan under the US-allied government in Kabul. US officials claimed that the growth of opium poppies was helping poor farmers make ends meet and that a heavy-handed crackdown on illegal crops would alienate them. 

According to the UNODC, the income of opium farmers plummeted 92% in 2023. Executive Director Ghada Waly said that the ban “is having a significant impact on farmers’ livelihoods and incomes, necessitating a sustainable humanitarian response.”