Source: The Guardian
Date: 3 October 2001

Experts back startling heroin claims

Alan Travis, home affairs editor

The prime minister's startling claim yesterday that 90% of the heroin sold on British streets comes from Afghanistan was backed up last night by experts in the drug trade and radical law reformers.

"The arms the Taliban are buying today are paid for with the lives of young British people buying their drugs on British streets," said Tony Blair. "That is another part of their regime that we should seek to destroy."

Afghanistan's world domination in the heroin trade stems from a record crop of 4,600 tons in 1999. "All the information coming from intelligence sources and customs and excise suggest that it really is true," said Roger Howard, chief executive of the drug information charity, Drugscope.

"They had absolutely ideal growing conditions that year and the amount they produced was 75% of the entire world production for that year. A good 90% of the heroin in the UK comes from Afghanistan. It may be more," he said.

Last year, a Taliban edict banned the growing of opium poppies and UN observers reported that by earlier this year the crop had been practically wiped out. In response, several western countries, including Britain, pledged aid to destitute Afghan farmers during the summer.

But the Home Office said last night that large stockpiles of the 1999 crop ensured supplies to the British market and street prices have remained stable. It is officially estimated that there are some 270,000 heroin users in Britain consuming about 30 tons a year with a street value of £2.3bn.

The Taliban is not the recipient of all this money, but it is an important link in the chain of production.

The farmers sell to traders, believed to include Taliban leaders and commanders as well as Afghan, Iranian and Pakistani traders. Most of the crop production is centred around the Taliban controlled area of Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, but there is also some also in areas controlled by the opposition Northern Alliance.

A home Office spokesman said there were reports that the price of opium on the Afghan-Pakistan border has dropped by 80% in the last three weeks from £460 a kilo to £100 a kilo raising fears of a flood of heroin to the west.

"People who are stockpiling it are offloading their supplies probably in anticipation of the developments that are to take place and to raise money for arms supplies," he said. "But we do not believe the UK is about to be flooded with cheap heroin because we have a steady supply and a steady street price."

Tamara Makarenko, a Glamorgan University criminologist who has studied the world heroin trade, said that according to statistics from the UN drugs control programme, heroin production increased by 100% between 1988 and 1991 to 2,000 tons and then expanded to the bumper harvest of 4,600 tons in 1999.

"By the end of 1999 Afghanistan was said to produce 75% of the global supply of opium, from which 80% of global heroin was produced."

This big stockpile drove the traffickers to find new routes and by the end of last year only 20%-30% was going to Europe by the usual Iranian-Turkish route. Last year some 40 Iranian border guards died trying to combat the Afghan drug trade.

Ms Makarenko says the Afghan and Pakistani traders have found a new northern route through the old Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and through Russia.

Roger Howard of Drugscope said this heroin had found a ready market in Britain where the "age of first use" is coming down as teenagers smoke the drug. It carries less of the "junkie" stigma that scared previous generations: teenagers are progressing to heroin much more quickly.

Last night the home secretary, David Blunkett, talked down fears of British streets being flooded by cheap Afghan heroin being sold on the world market to raise funds for arms.

He said the street price of heroin had not risen when the Taliban banned production and he did not believe that it would be in cheap supply if they now started actively selling off stocks.

The government's efforts to tackle the Afghan drug trade include a five-year strategy to try to see that new entrants to the European Union have effect controls on their external borders. This policy is aimed principally at Turkey, traditionally the site of the heroin factories where raw opium is turned into heroin.

But Tamara Makarenko's warnings that the traffickers have opened a new northern route through the old Soviet republics may mean a new strategy is called for.

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