Methamphetamine from Afghanistan: ‘signals indicate that Europe should be better prepared’, says new EMCDDA report

This report was prepared before recent developments in Afghanistan and before the withdrawal of US military and other NATO allies from the country. The findings of this report are preliminary and will need to be reviewed and updated as more information becomes available from the region.

Europe should be better prepared for the prospect of methamphetamine coming from Afghanistan, according to a new report published today by the EU drugs agency (EMCDDA) (1). The report examines the relatively recent emergence of methamphetamine production in the country and identifies actions that may be taken in Europe to mitigate the risks. The publication is the result of research conducted under the agency’s EU4MD and IPA7 projects, both funded by the European Commission.

Afghanistan: a new player in the global methamphetamine market

The expansion of the methamphetamine industry in Afghanistan in recent years follows the realisation by Afghan drug traders that ephedra plants (growing wild for centuries in the country’s central highlands) were a natural source of ephedrine, a precursor chemical used to make methamphetamine.

Today’s report explains that methamphetamine production was already occurring in the country between 2013 and 2017, but was based on ephedrine extracted from imported medicines (e.g. cough syrups), in a costly process requiring specialised chemists. The country’s move into large-scale ephedra-based methamphetamine production from 2017 appears to have occurred relatively rapidly, resulting in a ‘thriving cottage industry’ for the extraction of ephedrine from dried ephedra crops by relatively low-skilled workers (2).

Evidence suggests that large quantities of low-cost methamphetamine are manufactured in specialised facilities in the country by more skilled operators, known as ‘cooks’. The ‘full extent of ephedrine and methamphetamine production in Afghanistan remains unknown, but it could be considerable’, the report says. And while the availability of Afghan-origin methamphetamine on regional and international markets is difficult to estimate, chemical profiling by law enforcement suggests that it may have become available on consumer markets as far afield as east Africa and Australia.

Iran: from producer to transit nation

Iran has a longer history of methamphetamine production than neighbouring Afghanistan but there are signs that it is shifting from a producer to a transit nation. Since 2010, methamphetamine producers in Iran have faced growing economic, regulatory and law-enforcement pressures that have limited domestic production and led to a growing reliance on cheaper imports from Afghanistan. The Iranian authorities are reported to have played a key part in making domestic production riskier and less profitable.

EMCDDA research points to the availability of ‘cheap Afghan meth’ across consumer markets in Iran, and very low retail prices have been noted. Seizure data suggest that Afghan ephedrine and methamphetamine (sometimes in liquid form) are potentially being reprocessed in Iran, raising concern that the phenomenon is growing and has the potential to spread.

Possible consumer markets

Seizures of methamphetamine in the EU have increased in the last 10 years, although not to levels observed elsewhere in the world. The current market for methamphetamine in Europe is much smaller than for other stimulants (e.g. cocaine and MDMA), with consumption restricted to specific countries, regions or user groups. ‘Nonetheless, there are concerns that interest in the drug may be growing and that it could have the potential to play a greater role in Europe’s future drugs problem’, states the report.

Production inside Europe (located mostly in the Netherlands and Czechia) seems to be more than sufficient to satisfy current demand among European consumers. But the production of comparatively cheap and pure methamphetamine in Afghanistan remains a significant threat, as the drug could enter the European drug market via the well-established trafficking routes for smuggling Afghan heroin (notably the Balkan route via Iran and Turkey). As shown above, Afghan-origin methamphetamine is seen to be making its way to other consumer markets (e.g.  in east and southern Africa, South-East Asia and Oceania).

Mitigating the risks in Europe

To build on this strategic understanding of the situation, fill knowledge gaps and mitigate the risks, the report stresses the importance of increasing awareness on this issue among policy- and decision-makers in Europe and law-enforcement authorities (especially those located along traditional heroin trafficking routes). Also cited as a priority is training for customs officials, border guards and police authorities along the Balkan, southern and northern routes and at other key border crossing points, maritime ports and airports. Here, the risk of smuggling methamphetamine in liquid form should deserve particular consideration.

Finally, the report underlines the need to monitor for any increased availability of crystal methamphetamine in Europe by drawing the attention, and boosting the preparedness, of drug service providers. In addition, the application of chemical profiling of methamphetamine seizures by forensic services, to investigate their route of manufacture, will also help to maintain vigilance on this issue.