Photo credit: Andrew Burton/Getty
CTOBER 7th, 2001 was my twelfth birthday and it was also when Operation Enduring Freedom was launched. This was just the primary phase of the United States-led War in Afghanistan — lasting only until December 31, 2014. The New Yorker reported in 2004 that a retired Army Colonel named Hy Rothstein — “a leading military expert in unconventional warfare” — wrote that “the American military campaign left a power vacuum. The conditions under which the post-Taliban government came to power gave ‘warlordism, banditry and opium production a new lease on life.'” But despite this, beginning in 2011 things were looking good enough that both US and NATO soldiers started to withdraw from the war-torn country. However, due to escalating conditions in the region and a weak local government, the war still technically never stopped.
Fast-forward to January 1st, 2015, the day after Operation Enduring Freedom ended, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel begins and then a year later on January 1st, 2016, the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission starts to “train, advise and assist” the local military until stability and peace can be finally achieved. In order for us to get a clearer understanding of what’s going on, we must first look dive a little bit into the past to see the full story. Let’s begin forty years ago with the last king of Afghanistan: Zahir Shah, who ended up being overthrown peacefully by his cousin Mohammed Daoud Khan in 1973. The nation was then transformed from a monarchy into a republic with Khan becoming the first President of Afghanistan. To be frank, there has been “war” going on in Afghanistan ever since 1978 when a Communist party called the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) took over control in a coup d’état. This event overthrew the Mohammadzai family, who founded the Afghan dynasty and ruled it from 1929 to 1978. This period of time is known today as the Saur revolution.
That Communist revolution gave way to the 1979 intervention by the Soviets and the Soviet–Afghan War (1979–1989) against the Mujahideen. And after Communism fell in Europe, Afghanistan turned into blackhole for instability and chaos. Groups like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda — considered to be “politico-religious forces” and not political parties — stepped in to terrorize the countryside and somehow they have been able to resist armed campaigns ever since. Al-Qaeda has mounted several attacks on civilian and military targets in various countries — including the 1998 US embassy bombings, the 9/11 attacks, and the 2002 Bali bombings — with the US responding to 9/11 by launching the war on terror with Operation Enduring Freedom.
How drugs got involved
Alongside all of this warfare over a regime change in the 70s and of course, terrorism; there are over 33 million people living in Afghanistan. Most of them are just like those of us in the west: they need to make a living to take care of themselves and their families. Despite having allegedly over $1 trillion worth of precious mineral deposits; being called the “Saudi Arabia of lithium” by the New York Times — lithium being “a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys,” — the majority of the economy derives from simple agriculture. Fruits and nuts are not surprising staples since the country has been at war or civil war for over 40 years. Raisins are the “primary export commodity and once accounted for 60 percent of the world’s market,” and “agricultural products represent a share of 40% of total exports“. On the other hand, it remains the largest producer of opium — a reputation not so easily forgotten — with over 90% coming from Afghanistan. This staggering number is estimated to be “worth about $1.5 billion a year, making up 7% of the country’s economy“.
Afghanistan is insecure after decades of fighting – and that’s exactly why it’s such an attractive place to grow opium. It’s also cheaper and easier than growing wheat, which was how many Afghans made a living before the opium industry took off in the 1980s.
The constant and high demand for opium fuelled by drug users means farmers producing it have a relatively stable income – a rare thing in a country where work opportunities in the countryside are few and far between.
For as long as there has been a conflict, there has also been mass production of illegal poppies which naturally create one of the most notorious narcotics known to man. And on top of this — for as long as there has been western intervention since 9/11 — the cultivation has literally sky rocketed. Afghanistan was named the “narco state” by the Rolling Stone in 2014 for a reason: it has “224,000 hectares under cultivation” — which is up from 8,000 hectares prior to Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001. The country produces “an estimated 6,400 tons of opium” annually and according to the World Drug Report from 2015 (pdf) “over 13 and 20 million people” are addicted to opiates globally. The general numbness worldwide towards the stigma of heroin and opiate addiction shows us how prevalent the problem really is. Papaver somniferum or the opium poppy is “grown mainly by impoverished farmers on small plots in remote regions of the world,” says this very detailed PBS article. Opium poppy “flourishes in dry, warm climates and the vast majority are grown in a narrow, 4,500-mile stretch of mountains extending across southern Asia from Turkey through Pakistan and Laos.”
About three months after the poppy seeds are planted, brightly-colored flowers bloom at the tips of greenish, tubular stems. As the petals fall away, they expose an egg-shaped seed pod. Inside the pod is an opaque, milky sap. This is opium in its crudest form… The sap is extracted by slitting the pod vertically in parallel strokes with a special curved knife. As the sap oozes out, it turns darker and thicker, forming a brownish-black gum. A farmer collects the gum with a scraping knife, bundles it into bricks, cakes or balls and wraps them in a simple material such as plastic or leaves.
Then the opium enters the black market.
There is a “6% yield of heroin from opium”. It takes “16.7 kg of opium to produce 1 kg of heroin,” or think of it this way, “to produce a kilogram of heroin requires $1,670 worth of opium to produce a product worth $3,500″. This would all mean that the narco state is pumping out 6,400,000 kgs (6,400 tons) of opium, or 3832.33 kgs (4.22 tons) of heroin every year. That’s the equivalent of a full grown African elephant — made entirely of sap from tiny flowers — charging out of Afghanistan every 365 days. The social consequences of western governments aiding in the construction of over a quarter of a million additional hectares of heroin-producing fields — in an effort to expand the market and the economy for the locals — are incalculable.
However, if we look at how big private corporations look-the-other-way when investors fund terrorist cells — like HSBC in 2005 — as well as the US government in 2005 laundering money to support the cocaine cartels in Mexico and funding the contras in the 80s — we can see easily come to the assumption that terrorists and drugs themselves are essentially living off of the spoils of war. Indeed, the entire financial structure of the War on Drugs — started in 1971 by President Nixon — relies on the cultivation of both radicals (masked as terrorist cells or rogue governments) and drugs in foreign countries (which are then deemed either legal or illegal for the American people to use). The production of fear within Nixon’s war, coupled with the reality of insurgency portrayed on the news, allowed for the perfect vacuum in which the majority of folks wouldn’t dare question too much. By the time 9/11 rolled around, a new target was selected to be the next Axis of Evil and we’re still not sure why.
The opiate crisis
Drug trafficking in 1999 was the “third biggest global commodity in cash terms after oil and the arms trade.” I’m not sure where porn fits in but it must be pretty high. This concerns the drug dealers and the cartels: the Black Market. We cannot be exactly sure what the numbers are today, but with the profits of big pharmaceutical companies going through the roof — along with the increased cultivation of their favorite natural chemical to produce their opiates — it’s hard to avoid the coincidence of where the money is going.
The total revenue generated by opiates within Afghanistan is about $3 billion per year. According to UNODC data, the Taliban get only about 5 percent of this sum. Farmers selling their opium harvest to traffickers get 20 percent. And the remaining 75 percent? Al-Qaeda? No: the report specifies that it “does not appear to have a direct role in the Afghan opiates trade,” although it may participate in “low-level drugs and/or arms smuggling” along the Pakistani border. Instead, the remaining 75 percent is captured by traffickers, government officials, the police, and local and regional power brokers – in short, many of the groups now supported or tolerated by the United States and NATO are important actors in the drug trade.
This excerpt by Wired from 2003 explains very well what has been going on: “the CIA’s involvement with the heroin industry actually began slightly before the Vietnam War. During the Korean War, in 1950, the CIA allegedly traded weapons and heroin in exchange for intelligence…”
In the 1980s, CIA-supported Moujahedeen rebels were heavily involved in drug trafficking heroin. The CIA supplied trucks and mules, which were used to transport opium. Despite the fact that Afghanistan supplied approximately 50% of the heroin used by Americans, the U.S. failed to intervene or investigate the Afghan drug industry for years. Instead, many of the individuals trafficking the drugs in Afghanistan were actually trained, armed, and funded by the CIA at the time.
Opium production came to a gradual halt thanks to Taliban rule. By 2000, the Taliban had completely banned opium production, practically eradicating 90% of the world’s heroin.
Big Pharma is largely responsible for the opioid epidemic in North America. We see more and more overdoses and addictions related to these drugs, each year and it all stems from Big Pharma and doctors overprescribing medication and understating the side effects and addictive tendencies. This issue isn’t new, however; it actually started decades ago.
“[The marketing effort for opioid sales] was a promotional campaign unlike we have ever really seen,” explains Dr. Andrew Kolodny, the Chief Medical Officer for the Phoenix House treatment centers and co-founder of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing. “Drug reps were going to family care doctors, and insisting that OxyContin had no real risks—only benefits. What they were selling was the idea that pain was a disease, and not a symptom.”
This problem can be seen all over North America. In the U.S. and Canada, pharmaceutical giant Purdue has made over $30 billion USD from OxyContin alone since the mid-1990s. Purdue was actually largely responsible for the marketing campaign in support of these drugs, and in 2001, spent $4.6 million on OxyContin advertisements in medical journals.
It’s clear that the U.S. government and Big Pharma are heavily responsible for creating the opium/heroin epidemic in North America.
Purdue Pharma has gotten a bad reputation in Canada because of a long court battle and the eventual $20 million settlement in 2017, over overdoses caused directly by the manipulative marketing schemes and misrepresenting (or under stating) the addictive side effects of OxyContin. The profits the company is making off the drug are so astronomically high that even a couple hundred million in court cases here and there won’t slow them down.
The richest newcomer to Forbes 2015 list of America’s Richest Families comes in at a stunning $14 billion. The Sackler family, which owns Stamford, Conn.-based Purdue Pharma, flew under the radar when Forbes launched its initial list of wealthiest families in July 2014, but this year they crack the top-20, edging out storied families like the Busches, Mellons and Rockefellers.
How did the Sacklers build the 16th-largest fortune in the country? The short answer: making the most popular and controversial opioid of the 21st century — OxyContin.
There are more than “1,100 lobbyists working in some capacity for the pharmaceutical business in 2017. In the first quarter of 2017, the health products and pharmaceutical industry spent $78 million on lobbying member of the US Congress.” The “lobbying operation, on which it reports spending more than $675 million, is the biggest in the nation. No other industry has spent more money to sway public policy in that period.”
That’s almost a billion dollars spent by corporations in just one sector — in just one year — to ensure that the American public gets the most expensive drugs provided to them by their doctors. All the while keeping the entire economy of a far away country living off of the increased consumption of both legally prescribed opiates to patients and illegal sold heroin to addicts in a country which is supposed to be at war with drugs. Unsurprisingly, a ramification of all of this — not to mention deaths in combat — “the number of deadly heroin overdoses in the US more than quadrupled from 2010 to 2015… as the price of the drug dropped and its potency increased.” The street price is dropping so dramatically because there is so much more of it going around now. Due to the increased hectares in Afghanistan. Which can give thanks to the US military supervising the whole ordeal. The real killer isn’t just heroin anymore either, now it’s something so much worse.
In some counties [in the US], deaths from heroin have virtually disappeared. Instead, the culprit is fentanyl or one of its many analogues. In Montgomery County, home to Dayton, of the 100 drug overdose deaths recorded in January and February, only three people tested positive for heroin; 99 tested positive for fentanyl or an analogue.
Fentanyl isn’t new. But over the past three years, it has been popping up in drug seizures across the country. Most of the time, it’s sold on the street as heroin, or drug traffickers use it to make cheap counterfeit prescription opioids. Fentanyls are showing up in cocaine as well, contributing to an increase in cocaine-related overdoses.
The most deadly of the fentanyl analogues is carfentanil, an elephant tranquilizer 5,000 times stronger than heroin. An amount smaller than a few grains of salt can be a lethal dose.
Over two million Americans are estimated to be dependent on opioids, and an additional 95 million used prescription painkillers in the past year — more than used tobacco.
There is absolutely no sign of the War in Afghanistan coming to an end anytime soon and heroin production went up another 43% last year. As long as enemies like ISIS are roaming around in Iraq and Syria then there should be no reason to stop the war on terrorism yet. Even though some of us are forgetting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, we aren’t pursuing a new monster: we’re simply unplugging. In the 21st century there has been a record number of people searching for a fix to their disease and conveniently a paralyzed state of sorrow has been diagnosed over the generations. Through one pair of glasses, Afghanistan may appear to be a forbidden paradise of infinite fields — one which only now in the internet and multinational corporation age can be lawfully exploited for profit (the marketing, production, and distribution of brand-name opiates). But with someone else’s eyes, the cooperation between doctors, private corporations, government agencies, the military and the unknowing consent of the Afghani and American people has led to the largest drug deal in human history.
Sixteen massive elephants of heroin — each representing a year since September 11th — have stomped their way from Asia to our streets and pharmacies. Citizens feel as if they are stuck inside a prescribed psychological trench of a media-based competition: either for xenophobia and fear or war and denial. It’s your choice; it’s your demon. The patients and users are left by themselves to resist the labels and choose peace instead of getting high because that’s the only remaining way to stop the show from happening. As long as we ask our doctors for more pills to help us get through the day; as long as we decide to get stoned to get away from it all; we’re demanding — as collective consumers — that Afghanistan stays a war zone and we’ll just get back to you when we feel a little bit better.