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The profits from all this heroin are fantastic. Cocaine pales in comparison as a money-maker.
A kilo of heroin that goes for $2,500 U.S. in Afghanistan wholesales in Montreal for $70,000 and has a street value of $300,000. It’s six times more valuable than the same amount of gold.
By contrast, cocaine selling for $2,000 in Colombia wholesales for about $40,000 in Montreal and is worth $120,000 on the street.
But little of that profit goes to the Afghan opium farmers who tend all those poppies. Even the Taliban rebels, who are widely accused of profiting from the opium trade, make only about $110 to $150 million a year off taxing opium farmers and shipments, according to UN estimates – small change compared to the $3.4 billion that opium generated in Afghanistan in 2008.
Much of those profits go into the pockets of Afghan warlords and officials allied with Canadian and Western forces, said one Canadian government official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The official said the Canadian government has done little to curtail the Afghan warlords’ drug activities or even question Afghan politicians thought to be involved with drugs. “We’ve been very passive. We haven’t taken controversial positions on these kinds of questions.”
The official tells one particularly grim story. In one province, an Afghan district chief convinced the British to send him troops, saying he needed protection from the Taliban.
Right away, the British soldiers who arrived faced withering attacks and were forced to withdraw. They later learned that the district chief was actually an opium trafficker and that he had merely wanted the Brits to help him fight a rival drug gang. The attackers weren’t Taliban after all; they were the rival gangsters.
“The British ended up intervening in a gang war. This happens all the time,” the Canadian official said.
“We’re propping up crooks.”
Amir Attaran agrees. “Opium is the problem in Afghanistan. A corrupt narco-elite runs the country,” he said.
Attaran is a University of Ottawa law professor and development expert who has studied Afghanistan’s drug trade.
He said both sides in the country’s war have an interest in perpetuating the conflict because of their involvement with opium. “You cannot grow opium and traffic it on a large scale in peacetime. You need a fog of war,” he said.
“If you want to understand the conflict in Afghanistan, you have to understand this is a gang war.”
Attaran’s solution: legalize Afghan opium and sell it for medical uses, joining countries like India and Turkey that grow legal opium crops for the pharmaceutical market.
The result, he thinks, would be to turn warlords into regular businessmen and reduce the country’s violence and corruption. “I don’t really see an alternative that would succeed,” Attaran said.
Halfway around the world, back at Méta d’Âme, Lévesque is on the receiving end of Afghanistan’s problems and is also trying to come up with answers. He and other treatment workers would like a supervised injection site to be created in the city where users can get clean needles and meet intervention workers.
With heroin users waiting six months or more for a place in a treatment program, Lévesque says new solutions are needed in Canada, too.
This story was done with research assistance from the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting, a charitable non-profit dedicated to producing investigative reporting. Alex Roslin is the CCIR’s president, and Bilbo Poynter is its executive director. Read more about Afghan opium and its impacts at the CCIR’s site: www.canadiancentreinvestigates.org/