Plant-Based Meth From Afghanistan Is Turning Up All Over the World

From Cape Town to Melbourne, a new breed of semi-synthetic meth has become an export bonanza for the world's biggest opium producer.
June 16, 2021, 10:00am
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A man smokes Tik in Hanover Park, a gang-ridden suburb of Cape Town in South Africa. Photo: Rodger Bosch via AFP/Getty Images 

In the run-down township of Khayelitsha in Cape Town, South Africa a group of men are sitting in a living room as one of them holds a small baggy of white, crystalline powder to the computer screen on a WhatsApp video link.

“We’ve been smoking tik for years here. But this is the new stuff,” says long-term meth user Maninja, who is using a false name for fear of arrest. Giving the packet a little shake, he continues: “The price is the same, but the buzz is different. The other one makes you more hyperactive, while this one makes your body numb.”

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Tik is local slang for crystal meth, which has been prevalent in South Africa since the 1990s. Since the 2010s, high-quality meth produced in Nigeria assisted by Mexican narcos has been the dominant product. But now there is a new product in town, arriving from 14,000 km away in Afghanistan, marking a shift in the meth market that is contributing to record levels of use of the drug worldwide.  

Better-known for its vast poppy fields supplying up to 90 percent of the world’s heroin, Afghanistan’s new plant-based meth – which is cheaper and easier to produce for locals than making it from scratch in a lab – is turning up all over the world: in southern and eastern Africa; Iran, Iraq and Turkey in the Middle East; in Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Australia

With meth now emerging as another major Afghan drug export, fuelling spiralling use across the world, it has created a windfall for international crime syndicates and corrupt officials in a war-ravaged country that, amid the chaos of the West’s military withdrawal, is becoming a turbo-charged narco-state like no other.

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Shards of semi-synthetic meth from Afghanistan. Image: David Mansfield

Ephedra, or oman, was considered a practically worthless mountain shrub until the discovery that it could be used to bypass the complicated and expensive meth-making process of acquiring and cooking with pseudoephedrine, which had to be extracted from over-the-counter (OTC) medicines. The shift to using ephedra from around 2017 allowed Afghan drug producers to shift the quantity and quality they produce.

“Afghans had to import all these medicines, ship to remote areas; the cost was very large, to the point they’re making a loss,” said David Mansfield, a researcher who has been conducting fieldwork into Afghanistan’s narco-economy for 30 years. “Using ephedra more than halved their production costs. As a consequence, it has become a cottage industry. A farmer in a desert area, in addition to growing poppy, has a side business buying ephedra, which he makes into ephedrine and sells in the bazaar or onto the labs.”

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Mansfield’s team has counted 448 ephedrine labs in just two districts in Afghanistan, Bakwa and Khash Rod. “Potential production, according to our interviewees, is a thousand tonnes per year. In terms of meth, the country has the potential to compete on a global scale; made at a tenth of the cost in Southeast Asia, but selling at the same price.

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Ephedra labs in Nimroz. Photo: David Mansfield

Because ephedra is a wild mountain shrub and not an imported chemical, rather than squeezing out the opium farmers, the nascent meth business has allowed Afghanistan's drug producers  to weather the storm of poor poppy harvests and the pandemic. “The ephedrine industry has been a life raft for them,” said Mansfield.

Meth is being exported using established heroin smuggling routes out of Afghanistan. “There seems to be a lot of overlap between traditional heroin import syndicates and the recent inflow of Afghan meth. They appear to be diversifying their commodity portfolios,” said Jason Eligh, author of a report published in March this year which tracked the spread of Afghan meth across the Indian Ocean into southern and eastern Africa. “We can see this in the brokers involved in this new meth traffic, and more directly, we can see this by the frequency of meth and heroin shipments moving in the same vessels.”

The main export route out of Afghanistan lies westward, through Iran. Between 2019 and 2020, the amount of meth found in Iran more than doubled, which officials blamed on a flood of Afghan crystal. Closer to Europe, Turkish authorities too have been intercepting larger quantities of meth. 

Another route travels south to Pakistan’s Makran coast, where it’s packed onto ships and sailed across the Indian Ocean, landing on the east African shores of Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique, from where it’s transported overland to the biggest drug market in the region, South Africa.

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“Meth is cheap here,” said Shaun Shelly, who started South Africa’s first harm reduction project in Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria in 2014. “If you’re a regular and buy five grams at a time, that’s about R150 per gram [£8]. Maximum price is about R300 per gram [£16].”

Even though it isn’t their own product, it seems that Nigerian drug lords have such a reach in the South African dope business that they're supplying the Afghan meth too. “This new stuff I have, with the ephedra base, that’s what I have now, since last year. I got it from the Nigerian guy,” said Maninja. “He’s looking for new clients, so he told me to give some away.”

Although Pakistan is mainly a transit point for Afghan meth, it is also being increasingly used there, with its high availability causing prices to tumble to £2.30 a gram. And in April, Indonesian police shot dead a suspect and arrested 17 others in an operation which netted 2½ tonnes of Afghan methamphetamine. Several suspects were already on death row, allegedly orchestrating the enterprise from their cells.

Afghan meth has popped up in Australia, too. Known as “ice”, meth has long been popular in Australia and New Zealand, and has traditionally been imported from China and Southeast Asia – and more recently from the Netherlands. Once in Australia it is distributed nationwide by outlaw biker gangs (known as “bikies”). But last year, Australian customs found a huge shipment of liquid meth hidden inside bottles of mineral water. Forensic analysis proved the meth was produced using a natural form of ephedrine, suggesting Afghan origin. 

Australia is a tempting target for smugglers because of the huge mark-up from Asia to Oceania. Meth made in Afghanistan is often smuggled via Iran, with criminals sometimes duping law-abiding members of Australia’s Iranian community into receiving bottles of “hand sanitiser” or “shampoo” to be picked up by their associates.

The meth business has enriched Afghanistan’s already massive narco-economy, providing jobs for those harvesting ephedra to transporters, traders, millers, lab workers and smugglers, as well as corrupt officials and the Taliban, who all take a cut of the profits. While the profit margins within Afghanistan for a kilo of meth are relatively low, the real money made from meth comes to those who can move the product abroad. 

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Milling a test batch of ephedra in Bakwa, 2020. Photo: David Mansfield

Once it reaches Iran or Pakistan, meth’s value begins to rise. “There are big costs associated with cross border smuggling, but there are significant economic gains to be made for those who can move significant volume, particularly those operating multi-car convoys to Baramchar on the Pakistan border,” said Mansfield, the narco researcher.

Right now, the United Nation’s latest World Drug Report suggests the chief manufacturers of methamphetamine on a global scale are the Mexican cartels, followed by the Chinese, Iranian and Afghan producers. But Eligh and Mansfield believe that – due to the low cost of its production methods, a competitive edge over other major methamphetamine-producing countries given its plentiful supply of a wild ephedra and almost complete absence of law enforcement – Afghanistan may soon become one of the world’s leading sources of the drug.

“The reality is that anywhere you find flows of Afghan heroin, you should also be looking for Afghan meth,” said Eligh. “A wider international flow of Afghan meth is not something that’s coming in the future. Our research shows that this is happening already.”

Additional reportinh by Nomaphelo Mpambani and Machteld Busz.

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