UN warns of potential increase in overdose deaths as Afghan opium production decreases

The United Nations is warning that overdose deaths could rise following the Taliban administration’s ban on opium poppy production. Although this may seem counterintuitive, the new UN report explains that heroin users might turn to synthetic opioids, which are more deadly.

The synthetic opioid fentanyl is a major contributor to the surge in illicit drug deaths in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While some individuals intentionally purchase fentanyl, many others unknowingly consume the potent opioid as it is often mixed with other drugs, such as counterfeit prescription pills or heroin.

Afghanistan, historically the world’s leading opium producer, saw a 95% decrease in opium cultivation last year following the Taliban’s 2022 ban. This led to a 74% drop in global opium production in 2023.

“Demand for opiate treatment services, including methadone, buprenorphine, and slow-release morphine, may rise. However, if these services are insufficient, heroin users may switch to other opioids. Such a switch may pose significant health risks and lead to an increase in overdoses, especially if the alternative opioids include highly potent substances like some fentanyl analogues or nitazenes that have already emerged in some European countries in recent years,” the report states.

The report also noted a record high in global cocaine production. While consumption in the United States has decreased, it has increased in Europe.

Additionally, global seizures of illicit ketamine have reached unprecedented levels. Significant increases in seizures were reported in North America, the Near and Middle East/South-West Asia, Western and Central Europe, Southern Africa, the Caribbean, and South-Eastern Europe.

“The drug, illicitly produced for the non-medical market, can take various forms and has recently been marketed in various sensory appealing mixtures and concoctions such as ‘pink cocaine’, ‘tucibi’, or ‘happy water’. Several ketamine analogues, used as substitutes for ketamine, have recently been reported in East and South-East Asia and Oceania, raising new concerns,” the report adds.