Afghanistan's bumper poppy crop will turn up on the streets of British cities in six to nine months in the form of cheap but high quality heroin, experts warn.
Afghanistan is the source of about 95 per cent of the heroin in Britain, and the revival of its poppy trade since the overthrow of the Taliban has kept the price low, encouraging the spread of addiction. A gram of heroin that would have cost £60 10 years ago now sells for £40.
According to experts, there is a simple explanation for the fall in price - more of the drug is being supplied. And the criminal gangs who smuggle it into the country are rich enough and sufficiently well organised to regulate the market and keep the price steady.
Afghanistan produced a record harvest of 4,581 tons of opium in 1999, but instead of flooding the market with cheap heroin, the gangs built up stockpiles which saw them through 2002, when a clamp down by Afghanistan's Taliban government reduced the country's output to 185 tons.
While the drug dealers have kept up a steady supply, the British Government has poured more and more money from the NHS into combating drug addiction - doubling its spending in five years - to prevent the criminals from expanding their customer base.
Harry Shapiro, from the charity Drugscope, said: "The price of heroin has been consistently low for several years and the supply line is very long, so we aren't expecting an immediate effect on the price of heroin on the streets. It could take six or nine months to feed through.The reason heroin is cheap can be summed up in one word - availability. It is the law of supply and demand. There has been an increase in supply, and so far as we know - though obviously we can't know this for certain - the number of problem users has remained roughly constant at between 250,000 and 280,000.
"What has gone up is the amount the Government is spending on treating addiction, because it is seen as a law and order issue, and that has kept the number of heroin users constant. It also seems to have pushed up their average age, by getting young people off heroin.
"We've seen years when we expected a fall in the price of heroin because of a bumper harvest in Afghanistan. Then in 2001, when the Taliban clamped down, we expected the price to rise, but that didn't happen because the gangs had stockpiles, and supply was interrupted only for one year and recovered in 2002."
A research paper published by the House of Commons library acknowledged that Afghanistan's small farmers had no choice but to return to poppy cultivation as soon as the Taliban had been overthrown, to pay off debts. But poppy cultivation has spread since then onto land where they had never been grown before. By 2003, it was the main source of income for 2.3 million Afghans, or 10 per cent of the population.
Chris Mullin, a Labour MP and former Foreign Office minister, believes that the long-term solution may be not to try to destroy the crop, but to arrange for the NHS to buy it in bulk for medical use. The idea has been promoted by the respected charity the Senlis Council, which is based in Paris and has field workers in Afghanistan.
"I'm not saying this is a simple solution, because there are serious problems about enforcement when the cartels can offer a better price than the NHS, but I think it's an idea that should be taken seriously," Mr Mullin said .
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