A drug that is a mix of meth and opioids, and believed to be the first of its kind in the world, is on the rise in Afghanistan.
UN drug experts have warned that pills being sold on the streets as “tablet K” mark a new era in narcotics production because some of them contain both stimulants and depressant drugs. The tablet also represents a further step in the expansion of a cheap synthetic drug market serving up to the world’s poorest populations.
Tablet Ks look like badly-made, colourful ecstasy pills and sell for between £3 and £12 each. Alongside the usual mish-mash of gimmicky pinger logos, such as Donald Trump’s head, Rolex and Tesla, batches of tablet Ks have been stamped with the name of the Netflix series La Casa De Papel (Money Heist) with a masked face from the show on the back.
The pills have been steadily growing in popularity, particularly among young Afghans, since 2016. Despite this, until now, there has been little attempt to find out what the pills contain.
But on Tuesday, the UN’s drugs office published a forensic analysis of 536 pills seized over 2020 and 2021 and sold on the streets as tablet K. It found that while the drugs were sold under one brand name, the contents fell into three types.
Of the pills tested, 42 percent contained mainly meth, 23 percent mainly MDMA, and 32 percent contained the “surprise” mixture of methamphetamine and opioids. The opioids found in these pills was most often heroin, but was sometimes tramadol, a synthetic opioid painkiller.
Although the MDMA infused pills are typically sold for more than those containing meth or heroin, the report said there was no obvious link between the visual aspects of the tablets and the presence of a particular drug. So in essence people buying tablet K are essentially involved in a lucky, or unlucky dip, and could find themselves getting high from meth, MDMA or a combination of meth and heroin. One in ten of the pills also contained sildenafil, which is sold under the brand name Viagra.
“The presence of an illicit drug product in tablet form that contains both methamphetamine and opioids has implications for the understanding of drug use and supply in Afghanistan and beyond,” said the report. “The identification of opioids in a large number of samples [containing methamphetamine] was unexpected.”
Mixing stimulant and depressant drugs in the same hit is something heroin users have been doing for decades with speedballs, by buying cocaine or crack and heroin, and either injecting or snorting them both at the same time. Even though the drugs work in opposite ‘directions’ to each other, studies have shown that taking a speedball can potentiate the normal effects of both drugs to create a more extreme high. Stimulants and depressants are also mixed in Red Bull and vodkas or espresso martinis.
But drug trade observers who spoke to VICE World News said they had not come across a ready-made product containing the two types of high before.
Batches of tablet Ks have been stamped with the name of the Netflix series La Casa De Papel (Money Heist) Photo: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime
“I have never heard of such combinations in tablets in European drug markets or elsewhere,” said Andrew Cunnningham, head of drug markets and crime at the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA). He said that so far these types of pills “seemed to be a local phenomenon in Afghan drug markets” and that they were likely cheap products targeted at the Afghan population.
Between March 2020 and March 2021 officials seized 80kg of the tablets (around 160,000 individual pills), double the amount seized the previous year. In 2020 a survey carried out among young people found that for the first time use of tablet K was higher than methamphetamine, also a rising drug in Afghanistan which has become a meth production hub.
According to the report, tablet Ks are found across urban and rural parts of Afghanistan, with a high prevalence in the Eastern (bordering Pakistan) and Northeastern (bordering Tajikistan) regions, where use of the drug is two to three times higher than average. Production facilities for tablet K have been detected in Kabul and Kunduz, but there have also been reports of the pills being trafficked from Peshawar in Pakistan and Tajikistan.
Analysis of tablet Ks found the pills contained a total of 26 different substances. Alongside meth, heroin and MDMA analysts found a plethora of cheap pharmaceuticals such as caffeine, carisoprodol (a muscle relaxant), chlorpheniramine and diphenhydramine (antihistamines), dextromethorphan (a cough suppressant), propranolol (a beta blocker), diazepam, sildenafil, paracetamol, tramadol, chloroquine (an antimalarial medication), and tinidazole (an antiprotozoal medication).
“Afghanistan may no longer seem such an unlikely place for synthetic drug manufacture and constitutes just the latest example of a largely plant-based drug economy embracing synthetic drug manufacture,” said the report.