October 7, 2010:
The poppy plant disease that is sweeping across Afghanistan has destroyed about half this year's crop. As a result, farmers are getting 36 percent more for those poppy crops that survived. The poppy disease has caused great loss for about 100,000 farming families. This, however, is a small portion of the Afghan farming population. In fact, the opium and heroin produced from those poppies brings wealth to only about seven percent of Afghans, and misery and violence to the rest.
Production and distribution of these drugs is a major cause of unrest and corruption worldwide, with drug use a major public health problem as well. In response to that, NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan have put more emphasis on fighting the drug gangs. While the Taliban run their own terror campaign, to regain political control of the country, they do so mainly because they are subsidized by the drug gangs. The Taliban provide protection, as much as they can, for the poppy growing, heroin production (by refining the opium scraped from the poppy plants) and smuggling most of the drugs out of the country. Without the heroin (most of the world production), the Taliban would be much weaker, and the majority of Afghans much happier.
As bad as heroin is, the most widely used drug in the world is still marijuana (and it's refined version, hashish), which is considered no worse than alcohol in many parts of the world. There are about 160 million users of marijuana and hashish worldwide. Many users live in rural areas where marijuana grows wild and legal restrictions are not energetically enforced. But in many urban areas, marijuana is a major source of income for gangsters, and some terrorist groups. Not as profitable as cocaine and heroin, and harder to smuggle (because of the bulk), it is still a major threat because it has such a large market.
There are about 30 million users of cocaine, heroin and other hard drugs. These are the most profitable drugs, because they command the highest prices. Heroin, which funds much of the violence in Afghanistan, is largely (60 percent) consumed in three nearby markets (West Europe, Russia and China). Smaller, but significant markets are in the Persian Gulf and North America. Some 40 percent of the heroin is being smuggled out via Pakistan (which has millions of addicts of the cheaper opium, which in refined form is heroin). Pakistan is now the favored smuggling route because Iran and Turkey have become very effective in intercepting the smugglers.
Afghanistan produces 89 percent of the world's heroin, although that is likely to dip ten percent or more because of a plant disease (poppy blight) that has destroyed much of the recent crop. The heroin gangs will have to dip into their reserves to keep the drug pipeline full. Noting the increased popularity of heroin, more of it is coming out of the traditional big producers in the Golden Triangle (Myanmar/Burma), as well as new producers in Mexico and Colombia.
Cocaine continues to come mainly from South America (Colombia, Peru and Bolivia), and the biggest market (42 percent of sales) is North America. But Europe is catching up (39 percent of sales). In fact, the number of cocaine users in North America has declined by half in the last three decades, while the number has increased in Europe and other markets. Because of the growth in the European market, the cocaine gangs have established a smuggling route that goes through West Africa and the Sahara Desert (where the drugs are guarded by Islamic terrorists, who need the money). As if West Africa was not corrupt enough, now it has cocaine, and cocaine money, to worry about. Another growing market for cocaine is Latin America, which has about half as many users as North America's 5.3 million. Other growth markets are the Persian Gulf and East Asia (where cocaine is still relatively exotic.)
The biggest growth area is for synthetic drugs like methamphetamine and Ecstasy (and even more exotic formulations). Production of this stuff was up 20 percent in the last year. These drugs are less likely to fund rebels or terrorists, although some Arab migrants in the West have been found dealing these drugs, and sending some of their profits to Islamic terrorist organizations.