High times for Iranian drugs mafia
By Matthew C DuPee and Ahmad Waheed
Southwest Asia’s robust illicit-narcotics industry is usually associated with Afghanistan, a narco-producing empire responsible for supplying 90% of the global supply of illegal opiates. Additionally, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) recently crowned Afghanistan the largest global producer of cannabis resin (hashish) – with overall production ranging between an astounding 1,500 to 3,000 tons of hashish per annum.
However, the spillover effect from Afghanistan’s booming drug industry is having a profound impact on Afghanistan’s regional neighbors. Iran is emerging as an even more critical component in the region’s drug-smuggling infrastructure, and while drug trafficking through Iran from Afghanistan and onto routes destined for Europe is nothing new, Iranian trafficking syndicates are now responsible for smuggling a large amount of crystal methamphetamine and liquid varieties of the drug into points further east, such as Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Japan. According to new statistics issued by Thailand’s Narcotics Suppression Bureau (NSB), Iranian nationals traveling to Bangkok (via Suvarnabhumi Airport) top the police watch list as the most prolific trafficking risk among international visitors entering the country. So far this year, NSB personnel have arrested 75 Iranian nationals carrying a total of 164 kilograms of methamphetamine, with the average drug courier carrying between 3 to 5.7 kilograms of narcotics.
NSB authorities also say that Iran is the number-one supplier of crystal meth and liquid forms of the drug to Thailand; while amphetamine tabs (known locally as ya baa) are still exclusively imported from Myanmar. Crystal meth is the second-most widely abused narcotic in Thailand after ya baa tablets. Iranian smugglers routinely use a circuit of 15 non-direct air-travel routes out of Tehran, using transit points such as Syria, Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, before landing in Thailand. Those smugglers who fly direct from Tehran to Thailand mostly fly via Mahan Air, a private airline based in Tehran, according to NSB authorities.
The commander of Iran’s anti-narcotics agency, General Hamid Reza Hossein-Abadi, supported Thailand’s assertions, telling reporters the seizure of synthetic drugs in Iran has surged over the past 10 months. According to Hossein-Abadi, Iranian law-enforcement authorities seized 268 tons of narcotics, including 16.8 tons of condensed heroin, a regional specific variant of smokeable heroin known locally as “crack”. The seizure of condensed heroin is up drastically from the 6.8 tons of crack seized during the same period last year. Alarmingly, Hossein-Abadi indicated authorities seized 925 kilograms of methamphetamines over the past nine months, 320 kilograms of which had been seized in Iran’s airports. According to Iranian authorities, shisheh (“glass” in Farsi, a slang term locally for crystal meth) processing workshops are springing up across the country and counter-drug operations are increasingly seizing multi-kilogram quantities of shisheh on Iranian railways destined for Turkey and Syria. From here, smugglers are flying the highly potent and dangerous drugs further east into Asia where consumption of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) remains acute. So far, Iranian production of crystal meth outweighs the domestic demand, so smugglers are penetrating markets further east and suspected of funneling the crystal meth through traditional smuggling routes destined for Europe.
Globally speaking, the demand for ATS is increasing and areas producing these drugs are expanding. According to United Nations statistics, the number of people who have consumed ATS at least once within a 12-month time frame exceeds the number of people who have consumed cocaine and heroin combined. According to the latest UNODC report on global ATS production and consumption, it is estimated that between 3.4 million and 20.7 million people in East Asia have used amphetamines in the past year. Many countries in this region also reported that ATS have become the primary drug threat, usurping traditional drugs of choice such as heroin, opiates or cannabis. Production capabilities are also increasing, with dominant producers like Myanmar and Indonesia able to produce an estimated 700 million ya baa (amphetamine mixed with caffeine) tablets on an annual basis.
Iran has intrinsic cultural, social and economic ties to the Afghan drug industry, ensuring that if methamphetamine production and consumption becomes deeply rooted, the production of ATS could easily spread to neighboring Afghanistan. Unlike with organically produced drugs like cannabis, coca and opium poppies, there are no hectares of crops to measure, no seasons to analyze growth patterns, and no possibility for anti-narcotics authorities to remotely detect the “cooking” of synthetic drugs indoors. There is a strong need to enhance existing monitoring systems and actively track any possible emergence of new synthetic drugs being manufactured and trafficked from South Asia. If left unchallenged, the region could emerge as a galvanized global narco-hegemony, dictating the global market price for a wide range of illicit narcotics.
Matthew C DuPee is a senior research associate and Afghan specialist at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA.
For years, there has been much discussion about the best strategy to rid Afghanistan of its poppies. Eradication, said the George W Bush administration. Interdiction and alternative livelihoods, retorted the Barack Obama administration. Licensing and production for medicinal purposes, suggests the influential Senlis Council. The issues have been fiercely debated: Would there be enough demand for Afghanistan’s legal morphine? Is the government too corrupt to implement this or that scheme? To what extent will eradication alienate farmers? Which crops should we substitute for poppies?
These questions are not unimportant, but fundamentally, they do not address the primary source of Afghan drug production: the West’s (and Russia’s) insatiable demand for drugs. Afghanistan accounts for about 90% of global illicit opium production. Western Europe and Russia are its two largest markets in terms of quantities consumed and market value (the United States is not an important market for Afghan opiates, importing the drugs from Latin America instead). Western Europe (26%) and Russia (21%) together consume almost half (47%) the heroin produced in the world, with four countries accounting for 60% of the European market: the United Kingdom, Italy, France and Germany.
In economic terms, the world’s opiates market is valued at $65 billion, of which heroin accounts for $55 billion. Nearly half of the overall opiate market value is accounted for by Europe (some $20 billion) and Russia ($13 billion). Iran is also a large consumer of opium, with smaller amounts of heroin. The situation is similar for cocaine, for which the US and Europe are the two dominant markets (virtually all coca cultivation takes place in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia). In short, it is the West that has a drug problem, not producer countries like Afghanistan (or Colombia): demand is king and drives the global industry.
How should we reduce opiate consumption and its negative consequences in the West and Russia? Drug policy research has typically offered four methods. There is a wide consensus among researchers that such methods should be ranked as follows, from most to least effective: 1) treatment of addicts, 2) prevention, 3) enforcement, and 4) overseas operations in producer countries. For example, 12 established analysts reached the following conclusions, published a few months ago: Efforts by wealthy countries to curtail cultivation of drug-producing plants in poor countries have not reduced aggregate drug supply or use in downstream markets, and probably never will … it will fail even if current efforts are multiplied many times over.
A substantial expansion of [treatment] services, particularly for people dependent on opiates, is likely to produce the broadest range of benefits … yet, most societies invest in these services at a low level. Also, a widely cited 1994 RAND study concluded that targeting “source countries” is 23 times less cost effective than “treatment” for addicts domestically, the most effective method; “interdiction” was estimated to be 11 times less cost effective and “domestic enforcement” seven times.
The problem is that the West’s drug policy strategy has for years emphasized enforcement, combined to overseas adventures, to the detriment of treatment and prevention. Also, Russia has been complaining about the suspension of eradication in Afghanistan, but it has a very poor record of offering treatment to its own addicts, rejecting widely accepted scientific evidence. Moscow has chosen a strategy that “serves the end of social control and enforcement,” just like the US: criminalization is emphasized and the largest share of public resources is directed to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate drug users, instead of offering them treatment. This worsens Russia’s HIV epidemic, the fastest growing in the world – with nearly one million HIV infections, some 80% of which related to the sharing of drug needles – while syringe availability remains very limited. For instance, methadone and buprenorphine remain prohibited by law in Russia, even if they are effective in reducing the drug problem by shifting addicts from illegal opiates to safer, legal alternatives. Accordingly, a just released New York University report states that “Nothing that happens in Afghanistan, for good or ill, would affect the Russian drug problem nearly as much as the adoption of methadone” in Russia – which would also help Afghanistan reduce poppy cultivation.
Obama announced last year that the US would have access to seven military bases in Colombia under the pretext of fighting a war on terror and a war on drugs. Likewise, Russia recently announced that it would set up a second military base in Kyrgyzstan, to combat drug trafficking. Victor Ivanov, the Director of the Russian Federal Drug Control Service, explained how he was inspired by US drug war tactics in Latin America:
The United States’ experience is certainly quite effective. The powerful flow of cocaine from Colombia into the United States prompted Washington to set up seven military bases in the Latin American nation in question. The US then used aircraft to destroy some 230,000 hectares of coca plantations … Russia suggests building its military base in Kyrgyzstan since it is the republic’s Osh region that is a center of sorts whence drugs are channeled throughout Central Asia.
Europe’s record on drug policy has improved over the last two decades, important advances having been made to bring harm reduction into the mainstream of drug policy, and rates of drug usage for each category of drugs are lower in the European Union (EU) than in states with a far more criminalized drug policy, such as the US, Canada and Australia.
But there is still room for improvement. For example, although opioid substitution treatment and needle and syringe exchange programs now reach more addicts, “important differences between [European] countries continue to exist in scale and coverage”, a recent review of harm reduction policies in Europe concludes. In particular, ”Overall provision of substitution treatment in the Baltic States and the central and south-east European regions, except in Slovenia, remains low despite some recent increases. An estimate from Estonia suggests that only 5% of heroin users in the four major urban centers are covered by substitution programs, and that this rate is as low as 1% at national level.”
Lack of funds is no excuse, as there is plenty of money available, for instance, out of the $300 billion Europeans spend every year on their militaries, to maintain among other things their more than 30,000 troops in Afghanistan.
The UK was put in charge of counter-narcotics in Afghanistan. However, domestically, leading specialists Peter Reuter and Alex Stevens report that ”Despite rhetorical commitments to the rebalancing of drug policy spending towards treatment… the bulk of public expenditure continues to be devoted to criminal justice measures… this emphasis on enforcement in drug control expenditures also holds for the most explicitly harm reduction-oriented country, the Netherlands.”
In the UK, over 1994-2005, ”the number of prison cell years handed out in annual sentences has tripled” (although significant increases have also been made towards treatment). ”The prison population has increased rapidly in the past decade [and] the use of imprisonment has increased even more rapidly for drug offenders than other offenders… These increases have contributed significantly to the current prison overcrowding crisis.”
British enforcement costs taxpayers dearly, but the government does not regularly or publicly calculate those costs. Through a Freedom of Information request a document was released that ”calculated the annual cost of enforcing drug laws – including police, probation, prison and court costs – at approximately ฃ2.19 billion, of which about ฃ581 million was spent on imprisoning drug offenders.”
All this said, there is one way in which Afghanistan does have a drug problem, namely, its increasing number of addicts. A recent report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated that drug use had increased dramatically over the last few years and that around one million Afghans now suffer from drug addiction, or 8% of the population – twice the global average. Since 2005, the number of regular opium users in Afghanistan has grown from 150,000 to 230,000 (a 53% increase) and for heroin, from 50,000 to 120,000 (a 140% increase). This spreads HIV/AIDS because most injecting drug users share needles. But treatment resources are very deficient. Only about 10% of addicts have ever received treatment, meaning that about 700,000 are left without it, which prompted UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa to call for much greater resources for drug prevention and treatment in the country. The problem is that the Obama and Bush administrations could not care less: since 2005, the US has allocated less than $18 million to “demand reduction” activities in Afghanistan – less than 1% of the $2 billion they spent on eradication and interdiction. Clearly, US priorities have nothing to do with fighting a war on drugs.
Julien Mercille is a lecturer at University College Dublin, Ireland. He specializes in US foreign policy and geopolitics and can be reached at email@example.com
(Copyright 2010 Julien Mercille.)