Taleban Bans on Drugs: What is the Emirate’s counter-narcotics agenda?

Since they captured power in summer 2021, the Taleban have issued two strict bans on drugs. In April 2022, they banned the cultivation and production of opium and the use, trade and transport of all illegal narcotics. A year later, in March 2023, they issued another ban, specifically on the cultivation of cannabis and the production of hashish. Recent satellite imagery from the UK-based organisation Alcis has indicated that there has, indeed, been a dramatic decrease in opium cultivation in 2023. Data on whether the more recent cannabis ban is being observed and enforced is yet to come. In this report, AAN’s Jelena Bjelica and Fabrizio Foschini offer some background on the bans, including the less-covered prohibitions on cannabis and methamphetamine, and wonder if the Taleban will be able to continue to enforce their restrictions on a sector of the economy which is critical to national and many households’ income – without a backlash.
Afghanistan is one of the world’s major producers of illicit drugs: it has been the world’s largest producer of illegal opiates (opium, heroin and morphine) for more than 20 years, a large producer of cannabis resin (chars, or hashish) for decades and, in the last ten years, a significant producer of methamphetamine, which it exports as meth or other drugs that use meth, like ecstasy, to the region and beyond. However, the Taleban government appears determined to strip the country of all these unflattering ‘accomplishments’. Since the group returned to power in August 2021, it has issued two anti-drug decrees and has been steadily enforcing them. However, they have also kept a blind eye to the trade and trafficking of narcotics, according to a recent report by Alcis and the independent researcher and author on illicit drugs in Afghanistan, David Mansfield.
In this report, we first sum up developments on the opium ban, then provide some historical background for the less-debated ban on cannabis, and finally review and summarise what available sources say about methamphetamine production since the Taleban takeover. We conclude with a brief analysis of the impact of these measures on both farmers and the national economy and ask how sustainable the Emirate’s approach to counter-narcotics is in the long run.

The opium ban

The Taleban issued their first anti-drug decree, since they returned to power, banning the cultivation of poppy and production of opium in April 2022. It was right at the beginning of the opium harvest and when Afghans across the country were already suffering under the strain of economic collapse triggered by the Taleban’s military capture of power (for our initial analysis of the ban, see this report). However, the authorities granted farmers a grace period of two months, which meant the 2022 harvest was largely unaffected by the ban. Some eradication was reported to have taken place, as confirmed by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in its crop monitoring report released in November 2022. UNODC estimated that during this two-month grace period, approximately 6,200 tons of opium were harvested from the roughly 233,000 hectares of land planted with opium poppy in autumn 2021. The area of land sown with poppy in 2021/2022, the UNODC said, was “the third largest” since it began monitoring in 1995, with the opium crop witnessing further expansion mainly in the southwestern provinces. [1]

However, the Taleban Ministry of Interior conducted numerous anti-narcotics operations after the grace period, according to news reports (for example, here). These operations have been confirmed by Mansfield, who reported that the campaign to ban opium built up steadily and over a period of time:

In fact, what followed Haibatullah’s proclamation in April 2022 was a steady ramping up of pressure on drugs production, initially targeting the smaller lower yielding spring and summer poppy crops in the south and southwest, before tackling the methamphetamine industry over the summer and fall, and culminating in concerted action against the 2022/23 poppy crop.

This steady effort seems to have paid off. According to high-resolution satellite imagery of land use by Alcis and Mansfield’s analysis, in Helmand province, poppy cultivation “has fallen from more than 120,000 hectares in 2022 to less than 1,000 hectares in 2023.” [2]

That is significant because far more than half of Afghanistan’s annual opium cultivation has traditionally taken place in Helmand (see graphs 1 and 2). A favourable climate in the province allows for the harvest of up to three crops of opium poppy annually: the winter crop is usually planted in October/November and harvested in April/May, while the spring and summer crop seasons are far shorter and give poorer yields – April to July and July to September, respectively. The timing of the spring and summer harvests in Helmand is precisely the reason, according to Mansfield, why the Taleban focused their anti-drugs effort in Helmand and surrounding areas:

The authorities didn’t touch the standing crop – the one planted in the fall of 2021 – that was only a week or two from harvest as that would have provoked widespread unrest so close to the harvest season and after farmers had invested considerable time and resources in their poppy fields.

Rather it was the second and even third crops of the season that was the focus of the Taliban’s eradication efforts over the spring and summer of 2022. Typically, small and poor yielding, these crops were not well established and were a much easier target for the authorities. Much was made of these efforts with videos of crop destruction posted on social media by the Ministry of Interior as well as by individual commanders and farmers.

Graph 1: Data extracted from the UNODC Annual Opium Surveys. Graph by AAN, 2023.
Graph 2: Data for years 2001 to 2022 extracted from the UNODC Annual Opium Surveys; data for 2023 from the Alcis report. Graph by AAN, 2023.

According to Mansfield’s recent analysis, wheat cultivation now dominates the landscape of what had been Afghanistan’s main opium-producing region, the southern and southwestern provinces, which had produced around 80 per cent of Afghanistan’s opium annually for at least the last ten years. He said that in Nangrahar province, another significant opium producer, “by the end of the [2023] season there were only small pockets of poppy cultivation” and that “while cultivation persists – and may have even increased – in parts of the northeast, such as Badakhshan, it is clear the stage is set for the lowest levels of poppy cultivation since the Taliban ban of 2000/01.”

Counterintuitively, in the short run, the ban was not a disaster for all those involved in opium production and trade. Richer farmers and traders have benefited because of a hike in prices. Opium prices had been relatively low until August 2021, when the Taleban came to power, at which point they rose (see our reporting here). That increase in opium prices was an undisputed incentive for farmers to plant opium poppy in the 2021/22 growing season. Then, prices rose further in the wake of the April 2022 announcement of the ban. By November of that year, Mansfield says, “opium prices had risen to almost US$360 per kilogram in the south and southwest, and US$ 475 per kilogram in the east – triple what it had been in November 2021.” Farmers who could afford to wait to sell their opium until after harvest benefitted from the price rises. It gave them a measure of temporary financial security, even as they wondered what damage to their future incomes the looming ban would cause. For poorer farmers, who are given seeds and other support by traders in exchange for the forthcoming harvest, in practice going into debt each year, the higher prices came too late to have brought benefit. Landless labourers, who are typically paid in raw opium, also could not afford to wait for prices to rise. The short-term impact of the ban, therefore, has been very mixed.

The cannabis ban

The Taleban had indicated their intention to take action against all drugs, including cannabis, in April 2022 [3] when the decree banning opium also included a prohibition against the “use, transport, selling, trading, importing and exporting of all types of drugs.” [4] They have also taken demonstrative action against cannabis cultivation, for example by destroying cannabis fields in Farah province in June 2022, as can be seen in this Radio Free Europe video.

The timing of the second decree, numbered 510, which specifically forbids cannabis cultivation and charges the Ministry of Interior and the ‘investigative agencies’ with destroying cannabis and sending violators to court for prosecution, was precise. It was issued on 9 March 2023 (16 Sha’ban 1444 in the Islamic lunar calendar), just before cannabis would typically be sowed.

In Afghanistan, cannabis is a summer crop, with planting done in most of the country between late March and late May, harvesting in October and November, and resin extraction in December and January. The ban came before the crop was or would have been planted. However, according to AAN sources, it seems that in the north, specifically in Balkh, Badakhshan and Takhar provinces, the cultivation of cannabis persists. The hashish from Balkh and Badakhshan, in particular, is very much valued on the local and regional markets, and it seems highly unlikely that farmers in these two provinces would easily let go of such a valuable cash crop. It also appears that the Taleban may be acting more cautiously in these provinces and are aware of people’s dissatisfaction with the policy. In most provinces, cannabis is grown and is sown as part of a patchwork pattern among other crops, such as maize, and rarely constitutes the sole production of a rural household. Even so, the sudden loss of a year’s harvest would still represent a serious blow to the prospects of economic survival for many an Afghan family. [5]

The ban on cannabis also has wider implications than the ban on poppy. It challenges the circulation of a substance engrained in the life of many Afghans, the occasional consumption of which constitutes a favourite pastime for many otherwise ‘respectable’ people. Despite cannabis not being condoned by either religious or social norms, its use within certain limits has been tolerated more easily than other ‘vices’. Its use is fairly widespread, cross-cutting Afghan society in terms of its use by various age groups and in both rural and urban areas, although typically only by men (for more details on hashish consumption in Afghan society, read this AAN report). The relatively relaxed attitude towards hashish smoking as an occasional pleasure does not hold true for any other intoxicating substance, although opium may also be valued for its medicinal role in pain relief (a role that has always risked addiction, especially when used to treat chronic pain).

Like poppy, the Taleban had formally banned hashish production and consumption during the first Emirate (find their subsequent decrees on this here and here), although, unlike poppy, they had not made much effort to prevent its cultivation. However, in March 2020, while the Taleban were still waging their anti-government insurgency, they did issue a decree banning the cultivation of cannabis and the production and trafficking of hashish in areas under their control. They put a great deal of effort into formulating that ban, consulting Islamic scholars and their own various commissions before issuing it, and justifying the prohibition on religious and social grounds, while also being conscious of the financial cost it imposed on farmers (see this AAN report).

The strategy pursued by the Taleban in the growing season that followed the insurgency-era ban was to let farmers harvest the 2020/21 crop and then prevent them from sowing cannabis seeds the following year, but only in selected areas of the country: they enforced the ban in provinces where cannabis was a relatively new crop, such as Ghazni, Logar and Paktika. However, in that first year of the implementation of the ban, they did not stop farmers growing it in its traditional heartlands, such as Kandahar, Balkh and Nangrahar (for details on the 2020 Taleban ban, read this AAN report).

What about meth?

The methamphetamine industry has been expanding rapidly in Afghanistan since 2015 when local meth production moved to using plant-based ephedrine because the process of making it from over-the-counter medicines, such as cough syrups and decongestants, was complicated and more expensive. The raw material is the plant, ephedra, which grows naturally in arid areas above 2,500 metres above sea level, in Afghanistan’s central highlands and surrounding areas. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction was the first to note this move in a 2020 report:

Ephedrine, known locally as ‘F’, can be extracted using a relatively simple and low-cost method.… According to an ephedrine ‘cook’ in Bakwa, ‘this is easy, everyone can learn it’; another villager in Bakwa described how the number of local ephedrine cooks had risen from one to 30 in a period of three years.

Mansfield reported that the Taleban issued a ban on ephedra in December 2021; AAN has not been able to confirm the ban, but the actions of the Taleban in destroying stocks of the plant and laboratories in multiple provinces have been widely reported. [6] The prime focus of the Taleban was the Abdul Wadud bazaar in Bakwa in the southwestern province of Farah, which was the most important trading market for the ephedra plant. [7] “Once in Abdul Wadood,” Mansfield wrote, “[the plants] would be stored on open ground in the centre of the bazaar, where [they] would be milled and sold to the growing number of makeshift ephedrine labs that had been established in the surrounding area.” He described how those involved in the trade in Bakwa were first told they could not store the crop and later saw labs targeted. The number of labs in the 400 km2 area around Abdul Wadud, he said, went from 174 in February 2000 to 126 in March 2021, 114 in January 2022 and zero by September 2022. Yet, when it comes to methamphetamine, Mansfield said, “disruption rather than elimination is the more likely outcome of these efforts.”

The market disruption was significant and by November 2022 the price of ephedra and ephedrine had risen fourfold compared to twelve months prior, while meth prices had tripled. Prices have largely remained at these levels ever since.

AAN found the same upward pressure on prices when, in June 2022, a few months after the April decree banning all drugs and drug-producing plants, we asked about the price of ephedra and meth. We were told that one man (4.5 kilogrammes) of ephedra had been selling for about 150 afghanis (around USD 1.7), but since the ban, the price had risen almost seven-fold, to around 1,000 afghanis (USD 11.4) per man. As for the refined product, meth, called shisha (glass) in Afghanistan, one kilo was going for 150,000 afghanis (around USD 1,700) in June 2022. A local contact also suggested that, at least as late as June 2022, for each truckload, which is almost 4,500 kg of ephedra, transported to Bakwa market, the Taleban were still taking 300,000 afghanis (around USD 3,400) in taxes and transit fees.

What might be the rationale for the Emirate’s anti-narcotics drive?

The prohibition on the consumption of intoxicating substances is an obvious element of the Emirate’s view of the role of an Islamic state in upholding and enforcing proper Muslim conduct. In his April 2022 decree, Taleban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada says that those disobeying will face sharia ‘procedures’. As we explored in our detailed look at the thinking behind the Taleban’s March 2020 ban on cannabis in areas under their control, it was clear that the movement has been willing and able to justify their decisions on the grounds of religious sanction. When looking at the reasons behind that insurgency-era ban, we found they were multiple and went beyond the religious injunctions. They included the leadership’s desire to control its members: in a number of areas under Taleban control, some Taleban commanders had themselves been cultivating cannabis and trading its produce. Widespread hashish consumption among the population and the involvement of their own members in its very production appear to have raised the alarm among the Taleban leadership about cannabis at that time.

That mix of motivations may also hold true for the current bans. As well as religious injunctions against taxing intoxicating substances, there are domestic worries about consumption: in the past decade, addiction to drugs, especially heroin, has become a major problem in Afghanistan and a serious concern for broader public opinion. The Taleban have already displayed an iron fist against drug users in some hotspots of drug consumption on the streets of Kabul. The desire to demonstrate their ability to crack down on the widespread presence of drugs and their consumption may also have been behind the bans. They could boost support for the Taleban among some sectors of the population who are concerned about drug addiction, although would that balance the potential opposition from farmers, traders and labourers taking such an economic blow from the counter-narcotics prohibitions?

It seems possible, as well, that the Taleban’s decision to announce the ban on opium just months after taking power, as well as their determination to implement it, may be oriented towards international audiences as well. The fight against the production and trafficking of opiates is one of the strategic levels of interaction between Afghanistan and the world and possibly the only one where the Taleban can hope to establish non-controversial relationships and positive cooperation with most international actors. Any major success on this side could bring the Taleban some much-needed plaudits, at least as a reliable partner in the fight against drugs. Shortly after the publication of the ALCIS report, on 7 June, for example,  US special representative Thomas West acknowledged the Taleban’s achievement.

International reactions to the cannabis decree have been fewer, but the move has been commented on positively in the press of Pakistan, itself a producer, as well as a major consumer of Afghan hashish. Pakistani commentators also pointed to the blow this will cause to the funding of militant outfits (likely referring to the Tehrik-e Taleban Pakistan or TTP) and to the need, as they see it, for the United Nations and ‘international community’ to offer economic assistance to the Taleban to help support its counter-narcotics policy.

The Taleban may hope to attract ad hoc forms of economic support and cooperation to support their counter-narcotics policy. They may even hope it will ease their path to recognition. Or, they may just believe the bans are the right thing to do. Cynical observers might also point to those benefiting financially from the opium ban; in particular, anyone who had stocks or could buy up stocks of opium paste would already have made major short-term gains.

Can the bans be sustained?

The Taleban’s achievements in counter-narcotics so far certainly look impressive. Although comprehensive data on cannabis cultivation and production of meth is yet to come in, it is clear that the Emirate has, at least, effectively and severely cut back opium cultivation in the 2022/23 growing season. The reduction is especially dramatic given that, for two decades, the internationally-backed Republic failed to do anything even close to this. Indeed, it is a feat matched only by the Taleban’s first emirate. Then, the collapse of the Taleban regime in November 2001 meant it was never known how long they might have maintained their ban on poppy. This important question could be answered this time round: How sustainable – economically, socially and politically – will the Taleban’s sudden cutting off of opium production be?

The major consequence of the bans will be economic. This time, even richer opium farmers, who have seen the ban temporarily boost their household economies, will join poorer farmers and the landless who usually gain much-needed cash from labouring in the poppy fields, in being hit hard by the loss of this important cash crop if the ban lasts into future years. As prices for opium rise off the back of the ban, the loss of earnings will become even starker. An indication of losses can be seen by what happened after the last ban in 2000 collapsed when the United States intervened the following year. The one-year ban had triggered a massive price hike, and, according to UNODC, farmers, when they could grow poppy again, gained on average 16,000 USD per hectare compared to earlier years (the average annual gross income of farmers in the period 1994-1999 had been close to 1,500 USD per hectare: for more information on how much farmers earn on average see this AAN report ).

As for cannabis, its cultivation in Afghanistan has always been a fast-changing phenomenon, which is difficult for researchers and the authorities alike to monitor. Thanks to the availability of solar-powered generators for irrigation, the plant can be grown on many types of soil, even on terrain unsuitable for other crops. It also does not require sophisticated skills or prohibitive investment. In recent years, cannabis has been spreading to different parts of the country beyond its ‘traditional’ growing areas of Balkh, Takhar and Kandahar. In Logar, Ghazni and Paktika provinces displaced people or sharecroppers from outside the area have put empty stretches of land to use to grow cannabis, hoping for quick economic returns from small investments in irrigation. Like opium, a one-year decrease in production will not affect those who stocked reserves and may even have a ‘beneficial’ effect on market prices. The ban on cannabis is far more difficult to enforce because hemp plants can prosper nearly anywhere, including on very rugged mountain terrain. It is, therefore, unlikely to be as effective as the ban on poppy. Even so, in due time, an economic backlash will be felt by cannabis farmers.

The Taleban have also shown their determination to stop the production of meth, which will also hurt many households’ economies, even though, as Mansfield has tweeted, their targeting of labs in populated areas may just accelerate the existing trend to site labs in more remote mountainous areas, nearer, and therefore more cost-effective, to where ephedra grows. [8]

A complete halt to the drug economy, especially to opium production, trade and export, would be a major blow not only to many individual households but also to the national economy. UNODC has estimated that the potential gross value of the opiate economy in the 2010s, including exports, was equivalent to almost half of Afghanistan’s total licit GDP and helped employ about a quarter of a million people. Such a sudden drop in national income would surely exacerbate the humanitarian crisis affecting Afghanistan since the Taleban capture of power. “An effective ban on drug production in the midst of a failing economy,” warned Mansfield, “is a recipe for disaster.” In a lucid analysis for the United States Institute of Peace, economist William Byrd has also unpicked the harm the bans will have on Afghanistan’s economy, deep enough, he believes, as does Mansfield, to potentially cause a major outflow of refugees.

For government income as well, the bans will have consequences. In the past, the Taleban have taxed opium farmers with ushr (a tithe on the harvest) and traders with ‘customs duties’. [9] Here, however, it is a messy picture, at least on trade. According to Mansfield, drugs exports are ongoing:

Opium grown prior to the imposition of Haibatullah’s ban continues to be sold and seizures by Afghanistan’s neighbours and further afield, suggest a continued supply of both opiates and methamphetamine. In March 2023, the Taliban even removed the formal tax they imposed on the export of opiates since coming to power, easing the transactions costs for the cross border trade.

The Taleban must be aware that the financial losses for Afghanistan would be immeasurable if its international and national drug trade networks were dismantled for good. It appears that, for now, then, the ban has hit farmers, especially poorer ones, but the traders have escaped any consequences. [10]

State policy that hits people’s pockets, especially when it is seen to discriminate, is always risky. If few Afghans are likely to object in principle to the Taleban bans on drugs, the economic consequences of the prohibitions have the potential to alienate those sections of rural society that find a much-needed source of income in the cultivation of poppy or hemp or the collection of ephedra. For opium, that would be the south and southwest, Nangrahar and Badakhshan. Cultivation of cannabis is widespread across almost all provinces of the country, but there are areas where it is particularly developed and relevant in economic terms. Some of these areas, such as the provinces of Panjshir, Takhar and Balkh, are already hotspots of opposition to the Taleban.

At the very least, the bans are likely to mean some loss of goodwill from those directly affected and, therefore, the need for the authorities to either expend political capital for cajoling farmers to obey the ban or deal with the political consequences if they have to enforce it coercively.

Much will depend on whether the ban is maintained into a second and subsequent years, as lost harvests hit the incomes of richer farmers, traders deal with dwindling stockpiles of opium, the government deals with a loss of income and Afghanistan’s national economy suffers. 2024 and future years will be the real test for the Taleban’s anti-drug policy.

Edited by Kate Clark


1 UNODC said: “[I]n the 2022 cropping season… opium cultivation continued to be concentrated in the south-western parts of the country (accounting for 73%), where the largest increases [compared to 2021] took place, followed by the western provinces (accounting for 14%). In some regions opium poppy cultivation occupied a significant proportion of overall agricultural land. For example, in Hilmand province one-fifth of arable land was dedicated to opium poppy, and in some districts the proportion was even higher – taking away fields from vitally important food crops, including wheat.”
2 Interestingly, in 2001 during the first Taleban ban, Helmand recorded no poppy cultivation; of an estimated 7,606 hectares (ha) of opium poppy that was cultivated in Afghanistan during the 2001 season, none was in Helmand (indeed, almost all cultivation that year was in Northern Alliance controlled Badakhshan province). Helmand’s poppy fields shrank from 42,853 hectares in 2000 to zero in 2001.
3 This was despite having reportedly shown some interest in a proposal by one German entrepreneur who, in December 2021, said he wanted to legally commercialise Afghan hashish for therapeutic purposes (in German here and English here).
4 Full text of the opium decree (AAN translation):

In the name of Allah, the most merciful

Decree of His Excellency Amir al-mu’minin, may Allah protect him, concerning the forbidding of poppy cultivation in the country 

Number: (30)

Date: 04/09/1443 lunar hijri [5 April 2022]

All compatriots are hereby informed that from the date of the issuance of this decree, cultivating poppies in Afghanistan is completely forbidden. After this time, no one should cultivate poppies on their land. Anyone who sows it, their crops will be destroyed and they themselves will face Sharia procedures.

Likewise, the use, transport, selling, trading, importing and exporting of all types of drugs such as alcohol, heroin, shisha [methamphetamine], tablet K [a ‘dirty cocktail of methamphetamine, opium and MDMA], hashish and all other types of drugs, as well as drug-producing plants is forbidden. Anyone disobeying this decree will be referred to the legal and justice departments of the Islamic Emirate and will face severe punishment.

Wa al-salam [Regards]

Amir al-mu’minin Sheikh ul-Quran wa al-Hadith [Authority in teaching Quran and Hadith]

Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada

5 The rise of the more worrying opium poppy over the last 50 years has overshadowed Afghanistan’s role as a producer and exporter of hashish, which began in the 19th century. In the 1970s, when Afghanistan was a prime supplier of hashish to Europe and even North America, King Zahir Shah was prompted to ban cultivation and launch eradication campaigns in exchange for funding from the United States government. Production of hashish continued even during the decades of the Afghan conflict, with hemp becoming, much like opium, a cash crop of choice for Afghan farmers in times of uncertainty and thus a staple of Afghanistan’s illicit war economy. The post-2001 governments banned the cultivation, trafficking and consumption of hashish with successive counter-narcotics laws (read AAN analysis here). These efforts met little success, however, UNODC said in 2009 that Afghanistan is the “world’s top producers of hashish”.
6 Read recent reports about Taleban anti-ephedra operations in Uruzgan herehere and here; Sar-e Pul here; Baghlan here; Daikundi here; and Bamiyan here.
7 Laboratories for methamphetamine production in the same area had been the target of deadly US airstrikes in 2019 (read AAN report here).
8 Mansfield tweeted about the Taleban destroying meth labs on 12 June 2023:

This is not to say that the meth industry has been eliminated. It has not. Production persists but at markedly higher costs & in more remote mountainous areas, many of them closer to the source of the ephedra crop (which grows at 2500+m)…. This was a process that in part began prior to the Taliban ban- a logical response to the challenges of transporting bulky ephedra to ephedrine labs hundreds of miles away- but escalated after with larger numbers of labs appearing in the central highlands & areas nearby.

9 Ushr and zakat collected from farmers go not to the Ministry of Finance but to the Ministry of Agriculture and then the Amir’s office. See AAN’s special report from September 2022 on Taleban revenue collection, “Taxing the Afghan Nation: What the Taleban’s pursuit of domestic revenues means for citizens, the economy and the state.”
10 This report has not looked at the consequences of the Taleban ban on opium to global supply. Given the extensive stocks of opium paste, shortages will not be immediate as long as they are still exported. After the 2000 ban, according to Mansfield, it took about 18 months to two years for the price of heroin to be pushed up.


Taleban Bans on Drugs: What is the Emirate’s counter-narcotics agenda?