Heroin production and precursors (EU Drug Markets Report)

Production and precursors

The process by which opiates are produced from the opium harvested from poppies is illustrated in Figure 4.1.

Figure 4.1.

The heroin production process

Note: This illustration is intended to provide an indicative schematic overview of selected stages of a production process. It must be noted that alternative methods, chemicals and procedures may be used.

Source: EMCDDA. 

Trends in opium production

As mentioned earlier, Afghanistan is by far the world’s largest illicit producer of opium, the raw material for heroin, and Europe’s main supplier, although some heroin from South-East Asia may also be found in Europe. In 2014, global opium production was estimated to be 7 162 tonnes, second only to the 8 091 tonnes produced in 2007 (UNODC, 2015a).

For the last decade, Afghanistan has been the world’s largest producer of opium, never accounting for less than three-quarters of global production, although with marked fluctuations. In the period 1995–2005, global production was fairly stable but with Afghanistan becoming increasingly dominant, except in 2001, when production decreased abruptly to less than 200 tonnes following the ban on poppy cultivation imposed by the Taliban, then controlling the country. After the fall of the Taliban regime, the opium harvest immediately recovered to a level comparable to the years prior to 2001. 


Opium farming in Afghanistan

Children harvesting a failed poppy crop in Chaghcharan district, Ghor province, Afghanistan, July 2008. 

Photo © David Mansfield

Since 2005, estimated opium production in Afghanistan has averaged over 5 000 tonnes annually, compared with less than 3 000 tonnes in the previous decade, although in some years, such as 2010 and 2012, harvests were comparatively poor owing to poppy blight and unfavourable weather conditions (UNODC, 2014c). It is estimated that Afghanistan produced 6 400 tonnes of opium in 2014, a 16 % increase compared with the already high estimate of 5 500 tonnes in 2013 (see Figure 4.3). The latest data from UNODC (2015b) suggest that the 2015 Afghan opium crop is likely to be around 48 % lower, at 3 300 tonnes, continuing the pattern of yearly fluctuations. The reasons for this drop include a reduction in the area under poppy cultivation (19 % less than in 2014 after a period of expansion between 2003 and 2013) and, to an even greater extent, falling opium yields. It is estimated that in 2015 the average yield fell by a remarkable 36 %, attributed largely to water supply problems and to poppy disease in the desert areas into which much cultivation has shifted (Mansfield, 2015; UNODC, 2015b). The failure of many poppy crops in the desert areas of southern Afghanistan, and the absence of alternatives to opium production as a livelihood for the hundreds of thousands of settlers that live there, could eventually result in increasing migration out of the country (Mansfield, 2015).

In the second largest opiate-producing region of the world, South-East Asia, estimated opiate production in 2014 decreased to 762 tonnes, from a peak of 893 tonnes in 2013. Nevertheless, detected illicit opium production in South-East Asia remains at a fairly high level, especially when compared with the mid-2000s (UNODC, 2014d). 

Fig 4.3

Estimated global illicit opium production and share of Afghanistan, 1995–2014

Sources: UNODC, World Drug Reports. 

Heroin production

It is extremely difficult to estimate the production of heroin, both the agricultural raw material, opium, and, even more so, the finished product, and improvements in technology and changes in methodology can have a big impact on these estimates. The UNODC stresses that its figures are best considered rough estimates giving an indication of the order of magnitude, rather than as accurate measurements (UNODC, 2014c). There have been three changes in UNODC methodology vis-à-vis Afghan opiates since 2010, some of which have occurred since the 2013 EU markets report (EMCDDA–Europol, 2013). This has led to the revision of a number of estimates from previous years; hence the figures presented here may vary from those presented in the previous report. These methodological changes, taken together, have resulted in marked reductions in the estimates of heroin production.

The changes relate to uncertainties arising from gaps in information about key factors, which remain even in Afghanistan, the opioid producer country for which the most information is available. Areas about which we have only sketchy information include heroin laboratory efficiency, which may be very variable (UNODC, 2014c); the morphine content of poppies; and the proportion of the opium crop that is processed into heroin. Thus, there is a need to develop a better understanding of the dynamics of opiate production in Afghanistan, especially the proportion of the crop that is transformed into morphine and then exported out of the country as well as the fate of the opium exported to neighbouring countries.

In order to reflect recent methodological changes and remaining uncertainties, the UNODC (2014c) published four estimates of the amount of heroin potentially produced from the Afghan opium harvest of 2014 (Table 4.2). 


Estimated amounts of heroin potentially produced from opium harvested in Afghanistan in 2014 

Most of the heroin consumed in Europe is manufactured from Afghan opium, but relatively little information is available on where this manufacturing takes place.  Historically, Afghanistan has been the main country reporting seizures of opiate laboratories, indicating that large quantities of opium are processed into heroin in Afghanistan (UNODC, 2011c).

However, there is evidence to suggest that opiate production also takes place elsewhere. In addition to seizures of opiate-processing laboratories, seizures of illicit morphine (which is an intermediary in the heroin production process) may be viewed as an indicator of opiate-processing activities. For the last 3 years, Afghanistan has seized the largest quantities of morphine in the world, more than 60 % of the global total, and comparatively much less heroin. In contrast, in Iran, Turkey and Pakistan heroin seizures dominate, although in Iran, and to a lesser extent Pakistan, significant quantities of morphine are also seized (see Figure 4.4). In the period 2011–13 almost 132 tonnes of illicit morphine was seized in Afghanistan, 24 tonnes in Iran and 9 tonnes in Pakistan. During the same period, seizures of opium totalled 289 tonnes in Afghanistan, 1 198 tonnes in Iran  and 87 tonnes in Pakistan. This provides confirmation that some of Afghanistan’s opium crop is not processed into heroin in the country, and that there are markets for opium and morphine outside Afghanistan. Although fairly large quantities of opium are consumed in Pakistan and, even more so, in Iran, the amounts seized suggest that some opium may also be used to manufacture opiate products in these countries.

A number of hypotheses as to the possible uses for the large amounts of opium and morphine seized in the region may be put forward. A proportion of the opium and morphine may be used to manufacture heroin in Pakistan and Iran, and probably in other countries further afield. Alternatively, or in addition, a proportion may be used to licitly or illicitly manufacture medicinal products, including injectable morphine and codeine-based cough syrups, in Pakistan and Iran. It is likely that large amounts of these products are sold in these countries. For instance, there are large numbers of unregulated pharmacies and stores in Pakistan, where controlled drugs, including morphine, can be bought without a prescription (UNODC, 2013c). These products may also be exported to neighbouring countries.

Recently, following the establishment of a new system for reporting information on dismantled laboratories by Europol and the EMCDDA, there have been a number of reports that the manufacture of a range of opioids from a variety of precursors is occurring in Europe (see box ‘Opiate production in Europe’). This is a new development that needs to be kept under review. 


Morphine and heroin seizures in Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey, 2011–13

Source: UNODC, World Drug Report 2015. 

Opiate production in Europe

The normal picture of the European opioid market is one of large-scale production of heroin in far-away regions that is then smuggled into Europe by OCGs. However, old and new evidence suggests that this picture is too simplistic and markets are fluid and adaptable.


At the end of 2013, for the first time, the Spanish National Police dismantled a laboratory producing heroin from morphine; 20 kg of heroin, 20 kg of morphine and 75 kg of precursors were seized. At the time, it was the largest ever seizure of morphine recorded in Spain. In early 2014, this was surpassed when a second production facility was found, again producing heroin from morphine. The quantities of drugs and chemicals seized indicate that the laboratories were operating on a reasonable scale; the chemist in charge of the conversion activities was Turkish, and in total nine persons, born in various countries (Turkey, Paraguay, Honduras, Spain) but residing locally, were arrested. Furthermore, the Czech Republic has recently reported the seizure of several laboratories producing opiates. These include facilities undertaking the production of morphine from poppy straw, the production of hydrocodone and the production of heroin from morphine extracted from tablets of Vendal retard (morphine hydrochloride), a pharmaceutical product available in some EU countries (Hrachovec et al., 2015).

Although morphine is produced from poppies grown in Europe, the process is strictly controlled, making it unlikely that European-made morphine could be diverted to illicit heroin manufacture. However, the very large quantities of opium and morphine produced in Asia, combined with modern transportation and distribution options and the existence of well-connected criminal organisations in Europe, may be making heroin production in Europe a more attractive option.

Other products

Crude opioid products have been made in Europe for many years, such as braun, a home-made codeine- based preparation produced in the Czech Republic in the 1980s. However, the main crude preparations are currently made from poppies or ‘poppy straw’, the dried stalks, leaves and seed capsules of opium poppies, which contain residual opium alkaloids. The active chemicals may be simply extracted using water or other solvents and the resultant liquors can then be taken orally or injected, a practice found in several eastern European countries, such as Estonia, Hungary, Latvia and Lithuania. A more sophisticated home brew is kompot, which is exclusively produced in Poland. Kompot is a crude preparation of heroin that emerged in the 1970s and which produces effects similar to, but generally weaker than, heroin. It is produced from poppy straw and several chemical reagents, and contains heroin, morphine, codeine and other opium alkaloids in variable concentrations (Wodowski, 2004). It is a brownish liquid and is normally injected. 

Precursor — acetic anhydride

Acetic anhydride is used as an acetylation agent to process morphine into heroin and is subject to international control because of its critical role in the manufacture of heroin (17). However, it has many licit uses, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry (e.g. to manufacture aspirin), but also in the manufacture of paints, plastics, polymers, cellulose (for cigarette filters) and explosives. As a result, the global legitimate manufacture and trade in acetic anhydride is large and expanding, and this, combined with the fact that comparatively small amounts are required in heroin manufacture, makes preventing diversion for illicit purposes a challenging task (see Figure 4.5). 


Estimating acetic anhydride requirements for heroin manufacture, 2013 

Source: INCB, Precursors reports.

Estimates of annual licit global production of acetic anhydride vary, but the latest estimate from the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) puts it close to 1.5 million tonnes per year (INCB, 2014). Set against this, the INCB estimates that the requirement for illicit heroin manufacture is between 400 000 and 1.1 million litres (or approximately 430–1 190 tonnes, midpoint 810 tonnes) (INCB, 2015a), i.e. less than 0.1 % of licit production. In 2012, global licit exports were reported to be 397 000 tonnes and imports 414 000 tonnes (UNODC, 2014b). However, licit imports into South-West Asia in 2012 were very small: none was imported into Afghanistan and only 14 kg into Pakistan. This suggests that the source of the acetic anhydride used in clandestine heroin production in the region is the diversion of licit supplies outside the area. 

Efforts to prevent the diversion of acetic anhydride for illicit drug production include the pre-export notification of shipments leading to stopped or suspended shipments in addition to seizures. In December 2013, the EU strengthened its precursor legislation, by implementing a number of measures, such as a requirement for the registration of end users of acetic anhydride, which seek to reduce diversion (see box in Chapter 8 below on precursor control). These measures have led to large shipments to both Iraq and Iran being stopped. For example, one shipment of 2 200 litres being sent from Spain to Iraq was stopped in July 2014 as the importer was not authorised to import the substance (INCB, 2015a, para. 183). Although the number of countries providing pre-export notifications is increasing, there are fewer controls on supply within countries, and it is believed that most of the acetic anhydride diverted to illicit drug production is obtained from domestic diversion. Nevertheless, the above- mentioned entry into force of the mandatory end-user registration for acetic anhydride in the EU as of 1 July 2015 should further enhance the prevention of diversion.

The largest amounts of illicit acetic anhydride are seized in Afghanistan and surrounding countries, with West Asia accounting for about one-third or more of global seizures annually since 2009. Interpreting the data on trends in seizures is complicated by the sporadic nature of seizures. Nevertheless, the INCB reports that global seizures in the 5 years after 2009 were higher than in the previous 5 years (INCB, 2015a). However, its most recent estimate is that seizures account for less than 17 % of the acetic anhydride diverted for illicit heroin manufacture annually (INCB, 2015a, quoting its 2012 report).

In Europe, diversion of acetic anhydride still occurs despite stringent controls. Reported seizures and stopped shipments in the EU are sporadic, being reported by between two and four countries in each year between 2009 and 2014. They are mainly small scale (less than 50 litres) but occasionally larger quantities are involved, such as in Spain in 2013, when 9 498 litres were intercepted as a result of seven stopped shipments and one small seizure; in Poland in 2012 (1 755 litres); and in Slovakia in 2011 (6 020 litres) (INCB, 2015a). Seizures in Spain, which in 2014 also reported intercepting 4 942 litres, including 110 litres seized, may be linked to the recently reported seizures of laboratories for heroin manufacture and associated storage facilities (see box on p. 78 ‘Opiate production in Europe’).

Europol has established a subproject to support Member States in response to the problem of acetic anhydride trafficking, which aims to identify the role of OCGs in the trafficking of acetic anhydride from the EU. The OCGs involved in transporting heroin from Afghanistan into Europe are likely to be well placed to facilitate shipments of the precursor in the opposite direction. It cannot be excluded that acetic anhydride is diverted from the EU to Afghanistan along the same Balkan route used to transport heroin to the EU, sometimes in exchange for heroin, the so-called ‘reverse’ Balkan route. OCGs use their own front companies or infiltrate existing businesses to order acetic anhydride from companies registered in the EU. Although fluctuating over the years, Turkey has consistently reported significant seizures (INCB, 2015a), and, in December 2013, 14 tonnes of acetic anhydride originating from the EU was seized in Turkey, providing evidence supporting the use of this route. As indicated above, suspect shipments to Iraq continue to be identified and stopped, and continued vigilance and cooperation is needed. Overall, there is a need for additional evidence to understand the significance of the ‘reverse’ Balkan route.

Given the record poppy crop in Afghanistan, it is probable that there will be increased demand for the chemical. Hence, attempts to smuggle acetic anhydride to Afghanistan from the EU are likely to continue so vigilance remains important. However, other sources are likely to be of significant importance. For example, China reported increased seizures in 2013 and also in that year there was a large seizure reported by Iran at the border with Afghanistan of a shipment that was traced back to China (INCB, 2015a).

The price of acetic anhydride on the illicit market in Afghanistan, although still higher than on the international licit market, has fallen in recent years. The price varies depending on perceived quality, but average prices in 2012, 2013 and 2014 (first 10 months) were below about EUR 150 (USD 200) per litre, compared with over EUR 264 (USD 350) per litre in 2008, 2009 and 2010 (in 2013 US dollars). This suggests that the accessibility of the substance has increased despite efforts to control diversion. 


The production and processing of drugs may result in contamination with a range of sometimes harmful substances. However, in addition, mainly for reasons of profitability, intentional adulteration is common practice with all powdered drugs. In the case of heroin, the most commonly used adulterants are paracetamol and caffeine, and pre-mixed bags of brown paracetamol/caffeine powder have been seized by law enforcement. When heroin is in short supply, the extent of adulteration increases further to satisfy market demand. Adulteration (or ‘cutting’) may occur at all stages of the supply chain including at the point of production. For instance, UNODC estimates that in Afghanistan heroin of ‘export quality’ is 52 % pure (UNODC, 2014c).

Environmental impact

Although not well documented in the scientific literature, the mono-cropping of poppies and the manufacture of heroin will have an environmental impact. Deforestation and slash-and-burn methods for poppy cultivation, leading to erosion and soil depletion, are likely to be an issue in tropical areas of South-East Asia, particularly Myanmar (Chouvy, 2003), but also elsewhere. Indiscriminate use of agricultural chemicals, such as fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, in producer countries is likely to have a negative impact on rivers and underground water deposits. Finally, toxic chemicals, which include acetic anhydride, solvents such as ethyl ether and acetone, and hydrochloric acid, are needed to transform opium into heroin. The waste resulting from heroin production may simply be spilled on the ground or in streams and rivers in the areas, and, although scientific evidence as to the exact impact of this process on the environment is lacking, it is probable that thousands of tonnes of hazardous waste from heroin production is released into the environment each year (UNODC, 2006a). 

Short title: 
Production and precursors

(17) Acetic anhydride may also be used in the illicit manufacture of amphet- amines. It is believed that the increase in seizures in some parts of the world, e.g. Mexico, is largely related to its use in methamphetamine pro- duction (INCB, 2015a, para. 180) although it may also indicate increasing heroin manufacture targeted at the American market.