With the Taliban, an End to the Opium Trade?

What the group’s conquest of Afghanistan means for the international drug market

In this photograph taken on April 13, 2019, Afghan farmers harvest opium sap from a poppy field in the Gereshk district of Helmand province. / Getty Images
September 25, 2021

The Taliban’s reascent last month has already led to profound changes in Afghanistan’s government, culture, and educational system. Afghanistan’s new rulers have also promised another shift: an end to the trade in the nation’s major cash crop, opium.

"We are assuring our countrymen and women and the international community, we will not have any narcotics produced," Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told reporters during the group’s first press conference since taking power. "From now on, nobody's going to get involved [in the heroin trade], nobody can be involved in drug smuggling."

Afghanistan is the world’s biggest grower of illicit poppies, whose sticky sap is used to produce opium and other opiates, including heroin. It produces an estimated 85 percent of the world’s opium, with nearly half of the country’s arable land dedicated to cultivating poppy. In 2019, it exported between $1 and $2 billion dollars’ worth, a larger total than its licit exports.

The Taliban’s pronouncement thus could have a profound impact on both the country they now rule and the world drug market—if, that is, they actually follow through. Experts with whom the Washington Free Beacon spoke cautioned that the jihadists’ next steps were unpredictable, as they must carefully balance numerous competing concerns. Either way, the decision is likely to dramatically alter the international scene and could even lead to a cascade of deaths in Europe, a continent away.

Such is the nature of the international drug market: Small shifts in policy can work deadly changes a half-world away. Whatever the Taliban does, it will have profound impacts—all that is left is to wait and see.

A total ban on opium production would not be unprecedented: The Taliban implemented one in 2000, roughly a year before they were ousted from power. That ban was motivated both by Islamic fundamentalist principles, which prohibit intoxication of all kinds, but also by a desire for international legitimacy, particularly given Afghanistan’s isolation from the rest of the world community. The ban was swiftly enforced through the Taliban’s trademark draconian justice, resulting in a 91 percent reduction in areas under cultivation in 2001, including near 100 percent reductions in the major producing provinces of Helmand and Nangarhar.

That policy had an only "modest" effect on heroin prices, according to Keith Humphreys, a Stanford professor who helped craft the Obama administration’s drug control policy. Humphreys argued that targeting poppy production was a relatively inefficient way to reduce supply, given the flower’s low cost.

"When I worked for Obama, one of the first things I said was, ‘Don’t bother trying to suppress the opium trade in Afghanistan,’" Humphreys said. "Because the Taliban is willing to do things and has the capacity to do things we never could, ergo we will never achieve the level of suppression that they did, and even their level of suppression did not make that much of a difference."

But the relatively small impact may have been due less to the structure of supply and more to the fact that the ban didn’t necessarily reduce opium stockpiles.

"It’s not clear if people in Afghanistan believed that was going to be a permanent ban," Bryce Pardo, a drug policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, said. "A lot of producers, a lot of subsistence farmers, a lot of them had stockpiled opium, because traditionally, these sorts of bans were never really that permanent."

Some experts have even speculated that the ban was a strategic move on the Taliban’s part, to drive up prices and increase their revenues. Indeed, opium and heroin sales were a significant part of the Taliban’s revenue stream during their years out of power. Precise numbers are hard to come by—estimates range between $14 and $400 million—but the total contribution to funds is "nontrivial," according to RAND drug economist Victoria Greenfield. At the same time, some have argued that it eroded support among the Taliban’s rural farmer base—a key contributor to their defeat a year later.

Dependent as they are on opium, the Taliban’s stated intention to ban the drug may be as insubstantial as their promises to include women in the new Afghan government. They may continue to tacitly allow farming, so long as farmers continue to pay their "taxes." Or they may seek to flood foreign markets with a higher stock—although independent Afghanistan expert David Mansfield thinks that’s highly unlikely. "Without rising demand and a corresponding hike in prices," writes Mansfield, "it is unclear why farmers, processors, and traders would expand their activities."

How the Taliban will act, then, is governed by a complex calculus, balancing international legitimacy—and the aid that comes with it—against their interest in preserving one of Afghanistan’s few profitable exports. Layered on top of that are genuine religious concerns: As Humphreys described the 2000 ban, "they really did believe that [smoking opium] was wrong, and it’s not just that they were advised by McKinsey to push some of those profits into the next tax year."

If the Taliban move forward, however, not all countries will feel the effects equally. Although most opium is grown in Afghanistan, other producers—principally in Myanmar and Mexico—are also responsible for a significant share of the global market, which is itself highly segmented. Pardo, one of the RAND experts, guessed that a shutdown in Afghanistan would most directly affect distributors and consumers in Iran, Russia, and across Europe. Contrarily, it would have little impact in the United States, where the overwhelming majority of heroin is produced in Mexico.

That makes the United States peculiar, according to David Murray, a drug policy expert at the Hudson Institute. Afghan heroin has percolated even into Canada, but America’s often-porous border with a de facto narco-state keeps it at bay.

"Why isn’t half the [Afghan] opium not found in the United States?" Murray said. "Basically it got driven out by the Mexicans. That’s my thesis at least, that we don’t have the networks of distribution."

For those countries that do depend on Afghanistan for their heroin supply, however, a ban would mean substantial changes, if not a reduction in overall consumption (prior supply shocks, specifically in Australia, did lead to durable reductions in drug deaths). Initially, distributors would be able to use their stockpiles. But if the ban persisted long enough, and was effective enough, producers in the other poppy-growing countries, Mexico and Myanmar, could see an opportunity to expand their markets.

There’s another possibility, one which was not widely known during the first ban: Heroin distributors and users could switch, en masse, to increasingly popular synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

"The market has this ready substitute, where production can ramp up very, very quickly," Greenfield said. "And I would have concerns that if there were some period of shortage, it might be relatively easy for the market for synthetics to step in and fill that void. And then there’s an interesting question of if the market will ever revert back to where it was previously, or if a banning of opiates would create an opportunity for the synthetic opioids to gain market share."

A conversion like that happened in Estonia after the Taliban banned opium. "You could no longer find heroin, and so the suppliers in that country turned to synthetic opioids, principally fentanyl," Pardo said. "And that was the first instance of fentanyl taking over in a drug market. Since then, fentanyl has remained in Estonia, heroin never returned."

Although Europe has largely been spared the exponential increase in overdose deaths associated with the arrival of fentanyl in America, a continent-wide shift of this nature would be a disaster.