The International Heroin Market

Foreign sources of opium are responsible for the entire supply of heroin consumed in the U.S. Efforts to reduce domestic heroin availability face significant challenges. Opium production occurs in three source regions – Southeast Asia, Southwest Asia, and Latin America – creating a worldwide problem. While an undetermined amount of the opium is consumed in the producing regions, a significant amount of the drug is converted to heroin and sent to Europe, Russia, Central Asia, China, and North America. The routes, volume, and methods for the transshipment of heroin vary between the producing regions.

Global Heroin Supply

Historically, most of the world's illicit opium for heroin has been grown in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia. However, over the last decade, opium production in the Golden Triangle has declined while cultivation and production rates in Southwest Asia have increased considerably. In 2010, Afghanistan, as the world's largest opium supplier, accounted for nearly 80 percent of the world's opium, according to UN estimates. During the 1990's, Latin America evolved as the primary supplier of heroin to the United States, with Mexican heroin most prevalent west of the Mississippi and Colombian heroin most prevalent east of it.

Afghan Heroin

Since 2007, cultivation and potential opium production in Afghanistan declined for a third consecutive year in a row (according to UN and USG estimates). In 2010, cultivation continued to be concentrated in Afghanistan’s south and west, with 93 percent of the crop confined to just five provinces. An increasingly large portion of Afghanistan's raw opium crop is processed into heroin and morphine base by drug labs inside Afghanistan, reducing its bulk by a factor of 10 to 1, and thereby facilitating its movement to markets in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East through Iran, Pakistan, and Central Asia. In Afghanistan, there is a symbiotic relationship between narco-traffickers and the insurgency, as narcotics traffickers provide revenue and arms to the insurgency, while insurgents provide protection to growers and traffickers to prevent the government from interfering with their activities. Further, drug-related corruption continues to undercut international reconstruction efforts and good governance, as government officials abuse their positions by benefiting financially from the drug trade.

Heroin in the Western Hemisphere

Poppy cultivation and heroin production have been decreasing steadily in Colombia since 2001, when cultivation reached a peak of 6,540 hectares. By 2009, it had dropped to 1,100 hectares, the lowest level of poppy cultivation recorded in Colombia, according to U.S. Government sources (no estimate was made in 2010 due to bad weather). The potential production of heroin dropped from 11.4 metric tons of pure heroin to 2.1 metric tons, in the same period. In contrast, opium poppy cultivation in Mexico remains high, and Mexico continues as the primary supplier of heroin to the United States.  Estimated cultivation of opium poppy reached 10,500 hectares in 2012, with an estimated pure potential production of 26 metric tons.

Looking Ahead

The responsibility for curbing heroin production and trafficking lies primarily with the source countries. The profitability of growing opium poppy and the lack of resources or commitment by regional governments to implement crop substitution, alternative development, or eradication are key factors that prevent significant progress toward reducing opium production. The remote location and rugged terrain of poppy-growing areas are major obstacles to establishing crop-substitution programs. The lack of a transportation infrastructure in most opium-producing regions further complicates crop substitution because farmers have difficulty moving alternative crops to distant markets. Additional progress can be achieved if governments increase their commitment to interdiction, capacity building, agriculture and rural development, and other supply reduction measures. U.S.-backed crop-control programs have reduced illicit opium cultivation in Guatemala, Pakistan, Thailand, and Turkey. Colombia has an aggressive heroin control program that has been entirely assumed by the Government of Colombia.The Armed Forces of Mexico will continue to be challenged by the continued violence among drug cartels which pulls resources away from eradicating poppy.

Afghanistan's difficult security, political, and economic environment limit the government's ability to counter drug production and trafficking. Sustained progress against the drug trade will require continued commitment to the comprehensive counternarcotics plan adopted by the Government of Afghanistan and its international partners. Until Afghanistan has a stable security environment with sustainable rural and private sectors and robust law enforcement capability, drug production and trafficking will continue. Continued assistance and political support by the international community will be necessary to ensure that the Afghan government can achieve its objectives.

The United States continues to help strengthen law enforcement in heroin source countries, such as Afghanistan, by supporting training programs, information sharing, interdiction, mentoring assistance, capacity building, and anti-money laundering measures. The United States will continue to work with and provide support to opium poppy producing countries by creating both incentives for opium growers to participate in licit livelihoods, while simultaneously strengthening the disincentives to participation in the narcotics industry through increased interdiction and other law enforcement and supply reduction measures.