• Afghan opium production is down sharply (Photo: isafmedia)

'Heroin drought' in Europe due to fall in Afghan production

15.11.11 @ 18:33

  1. By Leigh Phillips

BRUSSELS - Europe has been hit by a ‘heroin drought’, according to the latest EU report on drug use.

The streets of Europe, in particular those in the UK and Ireland, have seen a sharp disruption in the supply of the opiate in the last year.

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, describing the situation as an “apparent heroin drought” in its 2011 report, assesses the situation at least in part resulting from a drop in the Afghan opium production to 3,600 tonnes in 2010 - half the level reached in the previous year

“The availability of heroin is reported to have dropped sharply in a number of countries at the end of 2010 and early 2011, with the ‘drought’ being particularly evident in Ireland and the UK,” the report said.

Shortages have also been documented in Italy, Slovenia, Russia and Switzerland, although the extent is less clear, while Germany, France and Scandinavian countries report little or no reduction in heroin availability. Heroin supply in other countries remains unaffected.

The crop in Afghanistan was hit by poppy blight in the spring of 2010, a possible factor in decline, although police reports suggest that heroin made from Afghan opium may not appear on the European drug markets until about 18 months after harvest.

The EU drugs centre noted that the blight did not significantly change the area under opium cultivation, but had an impact on the quantity of opium produced.

Unfavourable weather conditions may also have played a role, as may have a fungal infection that affected opium fields in the major poppy-growing provinces, particularly Helmand and Kandahar.

In its 10 year since Nato deployed to the country to fight Taliban extremists, Afghanistan has also seen heavy fighting in the south and crackdowns on heroin laboratories and opium stockpiles.

Additionally, heroin destined for western Europe has increasingly been diverted to the Russian market, although Russia also appears to be undergoing a heroin shortage.

A third explanation for the drought may relate to police actions disrupting trafficking, particularly after the dismantling of Turkey-UK wholesale heroin networks.

Furthermore, in 2007 and 2008, the drug market faced record seizures of the heroin precursor acetic anhydride in Europe, and, suggests the report, these confiscations may have affected the drug market over a longer period.

The report concludes that in the end, it is likely that “a combination of some of these factors has played a role in disrupting the supply of heroin to Europe, causing severe shortages in some markets.”

The decline in the Afghan crop yield led to a dramatic rise in prices at harvest time, the report continued, noting that the average farm-gate price of 1 kg of dry opium increased by a factor of 2.6, from US$64 in 2009 to US$169 in 2010, and the average price of heroin in the country increased by a factor of 1.4.

As a result, the EU drugs centre warns that the effects of the sharp decline in supply on consumer markets in Europe in terms of price and purity, need to be followed closely.

Already, the centre notes a “considerable drop” in the purity of heroin seized in the UK between the third quarter of 2009 and the third quarter of 2010.