Drugs war | Afghanistan

Opium for the masses

Profits from the opium industry account for over half of Afghanistan's economic output. An overview of the drug threatening to tear Afghanistan apart

A left hand holds a green seed pod of a poppy blossom. A right hand scores the seed pod with a tool. A brown mass lies on the tool.

A farmer harvests opium plant sap in a poppy field in the Darra-i-Nur district of Nangarhar province (2020)


Afghanistan and opium have been interlinked for about fifty years, with the drug playing a central role in the country's economy. Good cultivation conditions and high yields initially made opium poppies an attractive agricultural product for the poor rural population, especially in the provinces of Badakhshan and Helmand.

In the 1970s, commercial production for export took off. Bans on opium poppy cultivation in countries like Turkey, Iran and Pakistan created a gap in the world market. Legal controls hardly existed in Afghanistan at that time, so the country quickly rose to become the most important opium producer.

The mujahideen, various warlords and later the Taliban have all financed themselves through drug deals. Today, 85 percent of the world's opium is produced in Afghanistan. Around 6,800 tonnes were produced in 2021, from which up to 320 tonnes of pure heroin could be made. A total of 177,000 hectares of land are currently cultivated with opium poppies.

“Profits from the opium business account for more than half of Afghanistan's economic output”

Around 500,000 poppy farmers and 15,000 traders made a living from opium in 2019. Profits from the opium business currently account for more than half of Afghanistan's already plummeting economic output.

The drug is threatening to tear the country apart: in many regions, the industry around the opium poppy is the only way to earn money. It is also a high-risk business sector that brings along high levels of crime. Drug lords and corrupt officials reap most of the profits.

Girls and women in particular are often the victims of a dehumanising industry, for example when they are sold as “opium brides” by their families, mostly small farmers who have fallen into debt, in order to be able to pay creditors.

“Ten percent of Afghans are addicted to opiates”

And not all opium is produced for the world market: According to United Nations estimates, some 4.6 million people in the country are themselves addicted to opiates - more than ten percent of the population.

The Taliban are considered both profiteers and bitter enemies of the opium trade. In 2022, the cultivation of opium poppies was officially banned. To what extent this ban will be enforced and what this means for all those who depend on the industry remains to be seen.