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Opium Economics

Heroin makes Lou Reed feel like Jesus, and it won’t leave Guns N’ Roses alone, but how does it end up here in the United States? We take a look at the global opium trade from the poppy fields of Afghanistan to a shady street corner near you.

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opium

VOICEOVER: You live in the United States, and you want to score some heroin. On the streets, a tenth of a gram goes for as low as $7. The pure stuff, meanwhile, fetches around $360 a gram. That figures to more than $10,000 an ounce for uncut heroin—more than 12 times the price of gold. With your first fix, you transform into a troublesome statistic. There are 1.2 million opiate users in the United States and 16.5 million users worldwide. As an American, your heroin probably comes from Mexico or South America, but most of the world’s opiates spring from the poppy fields of Afghanistan, one of the planet’s poorest countries. Last year, opium accounted for half of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product. The raw stuff is found in the papaver somniferum, or, in plain English, the opium poppy. For 12 days out of the year, farmers drain the sap from the poppies’ pods, place the resin in plastic bags, and sell it to traffickers. In its extractive state, the sap becomes a lucrative black market commodity. Over half the crop comes from Helmand province. This narcotics hot spot also happens to be a Taliban stronghold. Taliban extend credit to farmers and tax their harvest in return for protection from crop eradication. By and by, the tax funds the Taliban insurgency against the United States. All in all, 509,000 Afghani households were involved with opium cultivation in 2008. These farmers who choose the ["PEE-low"] over the silo raked in nearly $4,000 a year on average. Legal crops earned only a bit more than half that, about $2,200. however, 98 percent of Afghan poppy cultivators say they’d abandon opium if they could earn as much from legal crops. Farmers reap only 20 to 30 percent of the countries total profits from the crop. Most of the money winds up in the hands of traffickers, heroin processors, Taliban, other illegal armed groups, and government officials. An Afghan farmer can sell his raw opium for $108 per kilo. After processing it into heroin, it sells on the international narcotics market for 100 times the price that farmers get right out of the field. Once it reaches American shores, that same kilo can cost around $360,000. Washington spent $500 million last year on counternarcotics operations in Afghanistan, but eradication efforts have leveled less than 9 percent of the total crop and seized less than 1 percent of processed opium. Most of Afghanistan’s opiates leave the country through the southern province of Balochistan, then on through Iran and Pakistan. From there, they often enter Turkey before traveling by jeep or boat into Eastern Europe. In 2006, approximately 60 percent of all heroin seizures occurred along this European Balkan route. If the heroin squeezes through the authorities, it migrates across Europe and, finally, to you in the United States. You inject heroin into a vein and experience a rush within seven to eight seconds.

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