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What Is the Future of British Heroin Addiction?

This year's bumper crop in Afghanistan might have something to do with it.
April 25, 2013, 3:35pm

Opium poppies growing in Afghanistan. (Photo via)

Your average British heroin addict has probably never heard of Puli Hisar.

But if they care about their heroin—which, let’s face it, they really do—they should take an interest in the stability of places like Puli Hisar, a district in the Baghlan province of northern Afghanistan that's seen a boost in opium production over the last couple of years.

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A UN report released earlier this month suggests that opium poppy farming is experiencing a resurgence in the country. In areas where poppy farming existed in 2012, it’s expected to expand. And other regions that have been poppy-free for years are set to see new crops.

According to the report, 14 of the country’s 34 provinces are now poppy-free. In 2010, that number was 20. That large rise in poppy production has, unsurprisngly, prompted experts to predict a record crop for 2013.

What all this means for the average British heroin user is up for debate. Dr Angus Bancroft, a sociologist at The University of Edinburgh, says more poppy production in Afghanistan is likely to have a direct effect on the heroin trade on Britain's streets.

He says it's simple market economics: more poppy farming means more heroin, which would facilitate a drop in price and an increase in quality. That increase could lead to an increase in overdoses, since users are used to a lower quality of heroin. Increase in quality could also draw more users, says Bancroft. The heroin-using population may also get younger, he says, as most British users are now in their thirties or older.

A poster in Afghanistan calling for the eradication of opium. (Photo via)

“Drug users who have shunned the drug in favor of perceived higher quality, less stigmatized alternatives may be tempted to switch to use it,” he explained.

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However, Martin Jelsma—a political scientist who specializes in international drug trade at the Transnational Institute—is not so sure there's such a cut-and-dry, supply-and-demand explanation. He says there will be no short-term effect, as there is typically a six-to-eight month delay between poppy harvest—usually between mid-March and mid-May—and the British and northern European market.

Jelsma expects that time frame to be even longer this time, since the record harvest will lower “farm-gate” (literally meaning “bought at the farm’s gate”) prices in Afghanistan.

The suppliers and farmers who can afford to wait the market out will do so, says Jelsma, and move their product once prices are on the rise again.

Although Jelsma is sceptical of the short-term effects, he admits that the crop may eventually lead to the end of the “heroin drought” the UK has experienced since the end of 2010.

If next year’s Afghanistan harvest is bountiful, he says the purity levels – as well as the quantity – of heroin in the UK may rise again, too.

In 2008 and 2009, the farm-gate price for a kilogram of Afghanistan-harvested opium was $100 (£65), says Jelsma. Then came two bad harvests: a blight and a plague in 2009 and 2010, and really shitty weather in 2010 and 2011. That meant that the farm-gate price rose to about $300 (£195) in 2011 and 2012. After last year’s spring harvest, the price started to fall. "It’s about $200 (£129) per kilo now," says Jelsma.

Photo by Adam Patterson.

Asked about a potential ripple effect from the rise in Afghan poppy farming, Chloé Carpentier from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction said that there might be an effect on European heroin prices and purity, though the use of heroin in Europe has been “generally stable or declining, so we will have to carefully watch consumption data [for the] next year and the following years”.

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Harry Shapiro, a spokesman for the London charity DrugScope, is sceptical that a record harvest will have any significant impact on the local market. “This has happened before," he says. "There have been other bumper harvests and the expectation is that Britain gets flooded with heroin. It doesn’t happen.”

Photo by Adam Patterson.

There are too many variables, namely the long supply chain and the number of players in said chain, according to Shapiro.

“You never know how much heroin is in transit at one time,” he says. “And it’s quite likely the opium is being stockpiled.”

While an opium surplus in Afghanistan doesn't necessarily translate to street-level market shifts in the UK, a shortage of product does.

“We saw that in 2010 with the blight,” says Shapiro. “In western Europe, it got a lot harder to get a hold of heroin.”

In the British market, heroin is selling for about £11 for a bag of 0.2 grams, he says. The purity, according to Shapiro, is typically around 30 percent.

Regardless of statistics, it's clear that trying to read the global heroin market is ultimately just guesswork. Or, as Shapiro puts it, “You’re dealing with an illegal and secretive trade. You can’t really track supply and demand like you would baked beans at the supermarket.”

Follow Danny on Twitter: @DMacCash

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