The wild, green shrub in Afghanistan that is dividing drug experts

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A wild, green shrub that has grown for centuries in the central mountains of Afghanistan is dividing international drug experts probing the embattled nation’s ballooning methamphetamine trade.

Researchers in the country and abroad were left scratching their heads this week after a United Nations report raised the alarm about the surging manufacture of crystal meth, linking its production to precursor chemicals or pharmaceuticals trafficked from legitimate markets.

The UN Office of Drugs and Crime report found highly addictive methamphetamine from Afghanistan is spreading across the globe, including Australia, South-East Asia and Europe, while the heroin trade slumps following a Taliban crackdown on poppy cultivation.

Is this wild green shrub fuelling Afghanistan’s methamphetamine trade? Experts are divided.

“The surge in methamphetamine trafficking in Afghanistan and the region suggests a significant shift in the illicit drug market and demands our immediate attention,” said UN Office of Drugs and Crime executive director Ghada Waly.

While the prevalence of the country’s meth trade is not in dispute, the report is at odds with research by international agencies and independent experts, which suggests the growth of the ice trade has not been fuelled by precursor chemicals, but by a perennial high-altitude plant: ephedra.

Experts who spoke to this masthead said suggesting otherwise was “inaccurate and misleading”, “strange”, and not supported by local or open-source data.

Ephedra is sold in Kabul for its medicinal qualities. It is brewed into a tea to treat a variety of ailments. Credit: Kern Hendricks

Traditionally used by local villagers in medicine, the ephedra shrub grows at altitudes above 2500 metres. It can be harvested, dried and milled for conversion into ephedrine that is then used to produce methamphetamine.

Since 2017 global researchers, including the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, have described a thriving cottage industry that low-skilled Afghan farmers have developed by harvesting the wild crop to bypass costly chemical processes that require specialised chemists.

For Dr David Mansfield, who has spent the better part of two decades researching Afghanistan and consulting on behalf of the British government, World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank, the UN’s latest report is tantamount to “bad science”.

“They offer no evidence of seizures of bulk pharmaceuticals, make ill-informed assumptions about relative conversion rates and costs, and completely ignore the large volumes of ephedra seized and destroyed by the Taliban,” Mansfield said.

Afghanistan is becoming a significant producer of methamphetamine, which is consumed in-country and exported.Credit: Kern Hendricks

He also rejected subsequent media coverage as “absolutely inaccurate and misleading” for suggesting meth trafficking in the country was rising as a result of the Taliban ban on opium.

Between 2013 and 2017, most methamphetamine from Afghanistan was produced by extracting precursors from pharmaceuticals, an expensive and complex method Mansfield describes as “the old Breaking Bad medicine approach”.

But from about 2018, he said satellite imagery — photos, videos — has consistently shown meth being produced in large volumes from ephedra.

“You don’t see over-the-counter medicines or bulk pharmaceuticals. You see dried ephedra and ephedra soaking in large tanks. This report seems to suggest UNODC are very late to the parade, and they’ve arrived wearing the wrong costume.”

Mansfield said he was compelled to call out the report after being contacted by multiple governments, institutions and independent colleagues who were sceptical of the report.

Seizures of methamphetamines in Afghanistan have soared in the five years to 2021, reflecting an almost twelvefold increase from 2.5 tonnes to 29.7 tonnes, the UNODC report said, describing a “rapid and sustained expansion”.

It examined the three key inputs for producing methamphetamine, comparing how much was needed to produce one kilogram of the drug: bulk industrial-grade ephedrine (1.75 kilograms), pharmaceutical cold medications (27.8 kilograms) and dried ephedra plant (196.8 kilograms).

Between 6500 and 11,700 tonnes of fresh plant matter would have been needed to reflect the regional seizures of 29.7 tonnes in 2021, versus 26 tonnes to 47 tonnes of industrial-grade material, UNODC estimated.

While the report acknowledged the use of ephedra and the fact it is cheaper to use in the short term, it said the large amount needed, and the labour involved, made it unlikely the trade could depend on the plant alone, highlighting its “remoteness, limited harvest period, and low plant density”.

Medications and industrial chemicals were more efficient and posed a far bigger threat, it said.

“The emphasis on ephedra risks undermining effective law-enforcement responses, which need to be regionally coordinated and focus on preventing and curbing the diversion and smuggling of bulk chemical precursors,” UNDOC said in a statement this week.

Extracting ephedrine from ephedra plants.

Mansfield rejected any assertion that harvesters could not capture the sort of tonnage needed for major drug production, pointing to satellite imagery from data firm ALCIS on November 27, 2021, which captured more than 9000 metric tonnes of ephedra in mounds at the Abdul Wadood bazaar, then Afghanistan’s largest open-air drug market.

Andrew Cunningham, who oversees markets, crime and supply reduction for the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, said the agency was also surprised by the report which did not align with its understanding of the situation in Afghanistan.

“We can only comment about what we see and what we have evidence for. And the evidence that I’ve seen so far supports that ephedra is still the main source,” he said.

Cunningham added that the report seemed “a bit strange” and lacked information to back up the warnings about bulk pharmaceuticals, urging the importance of providing evidence.

“The whole purpose of our agencies is to present evidence to inform policy. And so, when presenting evidence to inform policy, you need to be very careful about what you present because big decisions can be made based on the analysis and the findings of your report,” he said.

“So the UNODC, we think, must have some information, which is not explicitly stated in this report.”

In March, this year the AFP formally labelled Afghan-produced meth as a “significant and emerging threat” to Australia, as part of a crackdown on outlaw motorcycle gangs.

Federal authorities began tracking a rapid increase in the number of illegal imports of Afghan-produced methamphetamine entering the country, especially through 2022.

Commander Investigations Eastern Command Kate Ferry said forensic examination of recent imports show manufacturing techniques in the region have improved significantly, meaning the purity of Afghan methamphetamine is now equal that of South-East Asia and Mexico.

“Afghan wholesale prices have more than doubled since 2020, likely driven by higher purities, yet remain significantly less than wholesale prices in South East Asia,” Commander Ferry said.

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