Ephedra—known as oman in some areas of the country and bandak in others—has grown wild and abundantly across Afghanistan’s mountainous central highlands for centuries. Today, the plant is behind the dramatic growth in the methamphetamine industry in Afghanistan. Writes Lynzy Billing
In a quiet building at the back of a government compound in the north of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, Khalid Nabizada sits at his desk. Behind him are four screens, each showing a room packed from floor to ceiling with crystal methamphetamine—just a small portion of the amount seized by Afghan police in drug busts in 2020.
Nabizada has been head of the Counter Narcotics Police of Afghanistan
(CNPA) forensic laboratory for 17 years, processing more than 60,000 drug samples. These days, methamphetamine takes up most of his time. It’s the fastest-growing illicit drug in Afghanistan, he says. And while demand is high, the price is dropping.
“International buyers know it can be made easily and cheaply here, the chemicals used are not controlled, and this ephedra plant is everywhere,” he says, turning a wiry, green branch in his fingers.
Ephedra—known as oman in some areas of the country and bandak in others—has grown wild and abundantly across Afghanistan’s mountainous central highlands for centuries. Today, the plant is behind the dramatic growth in the methamphetamine industry in Afghanistan.
Around the world, most meth is made from synthetic ephedrine, a decongestant found in cough and cold products. And before 2017, producers in Afghanistan opted for this precursor as well, Nabizada says. They usually obtained ephedrine, or the related chemical pseudoephedrine, from store-bought medications. But sourcing enough to support meth production is slow and expensive.
So in 2015, Afghanistan’s producers began experimenting with extracting ephedrine from the ephedra plant, and by 2018, most local meth labs were using the plant. The switch sparked rapid growth in the industry and a corresponding surge in profits that are making their way to the coffers of the Taliban.
Data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) suggest that Afghanistan has in a short period become a producer and supplier of relatively large quantities of low-cost ephedrine and methamphetamine. The unregulated output has the potential to rival the value of the country’s infamous levels of poppy-derived opiates.
A growing number of methamphetamine manufacturing facilities operate across Afghanistan, in western Farah and Herat, as well as Nimroz Province, which borders Iran—areas, Nabizada says, that are not fully under government control. The starting materials are easy to get: the ephedra plant is legal in Afghanistan, and other chemicals used in meth production, including iodine, red phosphorus, and sulfuric acid, are also unregulated and widely available in the country.
Illicit-drug makers in Afghanistan recognized the potential to use the ephedra plant in meth production over a decade ago. David Mansfield, an independent consultant who has been researching Afghanistan’s synthetic drug production for the past 25 years, says that Iran and China are possible points of origin for the know-how of extracting ephedrine from the plant. One theory, noted by a 2020 article in the digital magazine Undark, is that Iranian meth producers passed their knowledge to Afghan counterparts in the mid-2010s to skirt an Iranian crackdown.
In Afghanistan, meth producers often conduct ephedra-based meth production in simple mud huts with limited resources and equipment. Aside from the key ingredient of ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, meth production requires only a handful of common chemicals, some simple kitchen glassware, and a gas burner.
Transitioning from over-the-counter medicines to ephedrine isolated from the ephedra plant has advantages: plant extraction is cheaper and requires little chemical knowledge. Still, ephedra is a limited natural resource collected only in the summer, unless cultivated on purpose in fields, Mansfield says.
And extraction requires a large amount of the plant and a regular supply. Depending on the quality of the ephedra plant, between 115 and 270 kg are required to produce 1 kg of ephedrine, which in turn yields about two-thirds of a kilogram of methamphetamine.
Lynzy Billing is a freelance writer and photographer based in Afghanistan and Iraq.
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