Kazakstan's Cannabis Klondike
In the fading light of a February afternoon, two men climbed out of a jeep parked in the Chu valley of southeastern Kazakstan. They walked over to a hole hidden by branches and hauled out ten large bags full of marijuana.
When an IWPR contributor approached them, they appeared unconcerned. Giving their names as Ulugbek and Timur, they said they have come over from neighbouring Kyrgyzstan to collect their stash of narcotics and would have no problem getting it back across the poorly-guarded border.
“We’re not worried about the police,” said one. “They have no transport at the moment and won’t be here until summer, when Operation Poppy begins,” said the other, referring to the annual anti-narcotics raids, which occur only during the growing season.
The Chu valley (known as Shu in Kazak) is notorious for the cannabis plants which grow both wild and cultivated here and resist all attempts to stamp them out. A lively if illegal business has grown up in harvesting, processing and shipping the marijuana leaves.
Underfunding means that the limited policing effort is focused on the cultivation and harvesting period, when traffic is closely monitored to stop drugs being shifted out of the region.
But IWPR has learned that the smugglers are now exploiting the way the police operate, and simply stashing their drugs after harvesting so that they can return to pick them up and traffic them at a later date.
Half an hour after the Kyrgyz traffickers went off with their booty, some local Kazaks arrived on horseback to recover their own cache.
“It’s better to dig a hole in the Chu valley itself,” said one of the men. “If you hide the dope in your back garden, the police might find it.
“The Chu valley is huge and the police with their limited resources will never find it here.”
DRUG ENFORCEMENT NIGHTMARE
The sheer size of the valley and the proliferation of wild marijuana has led to it being nicknamed the “cannabis Klondike”.
The trafficking business is profitable, as one kilogramme of dried cannabis leaves which costs around four US dollars locally becomes worth 25 dollars the moment it moves outside Jambyl, the administrative region where the valley is located.
Good rail and road links mean that once harvested, the crop can be easily transported to market. The town of Chu has the largest rail junction in Kazakstan, with more than 100 trains leaving every day. The proximity of major highways mean the drug couriers can use cars or lorries instead.
The cannabis is mostly trafficked straight to Russia, but increasingly Kyrgyzstan has become a transit route since its international border, which cuts through the valley, is poorly guarded.
“There are two fixed customs checkpoints to cover 120 kilometres of frontier in the Chu and Merke districts bordering Kyrgyzstan,” said Vladimir Gavrilchenko, who heads the dog patrol department of Kazakstan’s customs service. “Given the lack of mobile patrols, control of the area is ineffective, as the criminal gangs avoid busy roads and cross the border at remote points.”
Cannabis grows prolifically in the wild, and local villagers also cultivate it in their gardens. The result is staggering levels of narcotics production - more than 5,000 tons of marijuana leaves and 40 tons of processed resin every year.
The growing conditions are so ideal that the plants contain unusually high levels of the active ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol, and the Chu product is valued for its potency by drug users throughout the former Soviet Union.
One local village – Aspara – is said to have been named in honour of “asparinka”, the strongest local strain of marijuana.
Law enforcement officials say their biggest handicap is a lack of police officers.
“There are only 12 people in our department,” the head of the Jambyl regional drug squad, Erjan Evdauletov, told IWPR. “This department has to cover four districts, not just the Chu valley.”
To compound the difficulties, Evdauletov says his squad has no cross-country vehicles and only eight police cars to cover the entire Jambyl region, which at 145,000 square kilometres is bigger than England.
The Kazak government accepts that it cannot tackle the problem unaided.
Interior Minister Zautbek Turisbekov recently admitted that the police are limited to making raids in the Chu for just a few months every year.
“Unfortunately we only control the Chu valley four months out of every year because of a lack of funds,” he said during a UN Security Council sub-committee meeting on counter-terrorism in Almaty in January 2004.
Kazak police told IWPR they focus their resources on period between July and October when most cannabis is harvested. “Essentially the Chu valley is only raided during the peak of the cannabis season, which occurs during these four months,” said a senior policeman speaking on condition of anonymity.
Government officials acknowledge that police raid patterns make it easier for the drug traffickers.
“The criminals are smart – they avoid the valley during those four months but then work during the other eight,” said Turisbekov.
That’s a view shared by local residents active in the drug trade.
“Every year during Operation Poppy, the police tell us that we must burn the cannabis in our gardens within three days,” said one villager, who asked not to be named. “But because there aren’t enough police, they can’t check every house. So instead of actually destroying the plants by cutting them off at the root, we pick off the leaves and store them in plastic bags which we then hide somewhere in the valley.”
Due to the lack of manpower and equipment, police rely heavily on informers, who are often people they catch red-handed but release in exchange for information.
But such informers tend to stay quiet about their neighbours’ activities, so that most of those identified and caught by police are not locals.
“They prefer to give us outsiders,” said a local policeman who preferred not to be named. “The result is that people from Kyrgyzstan make up the bulk of those arrested for drug smuggling.”
DRUG ABUSE RISING
Health professionals in Jambyl region say illegal narcotics use is increasing in parallel with the easier availability of locally-produced cannabis as well as harder drugs such as heroin coming north from Afghanistan.
They point to government statistics which show a 33 per cent increase in illegal substance abuse last year. And according to Viktor Tsoi, who heads the regional drug clinic, the true figure is at least 10 times higher.
Tsoi says the health authorities simply lack the resources to cope.
“Although we have to contend with the Chu valley, we only have one ward with four beds to look after all the recovering addicts from the whole [Jambyl] region,” he told IWPR. “The only patients here are those who come for voluntary treatment, and the rest are ignored by the statistics.”
STAMPING OUT THE TRADE
At the beginning of February, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime signed an agreement with the Kazak government to support five projects worth more than nine million dollars designed to combat the drug trade.
The programmes will set out to curb illegal trafficking by using better intelligence-gathering to make it harder for traffickers to cross borders or launder money, and also to mitigate the spread of HIV infection – thought to be the highest in Central Asia among shared-needle users.
Much of this looks more applicable to curbing the flow of heroin, which transits Kazakstan on its way from Afghanistan to Russia and Western Europe. The domestic cannabis trade is likely to remain resilient, as it rooted in the natural abundance of nature.
Government officials and experts remain divided on how to deal with the Chu valley. Proposals have ranged from deploying a special militia force to developing alternative industries manufacturing hemp, textiles, medicine and oil from the plants. Some have suggested introducing strains of the hemp plant which do not produce cannabis oils.
Other schemes have included killing off the plantations with crop-duster spraying, or even running vast herds of cattle through the valley to trample the crop.
But to date these plans have failed either because of scepticism about their effectiveness, or a simple lack of funding.
Local law-enforcement officials say the easiest solutions are outweighed by environmental concerns.
“We can’t use the most effective chemical or mechanical means of destroying the crops,” said Chu district police chief Murat Ospanov.
“Crop-dusting would destroy fertile grazing pastures and poison the animals, while ploughing up the plants would damage the sensitive soil.
“All we can do is burn large amounts of wild cannabis, but that doesn’t seem to make much of a difference.”
Gaziza Baituova is an IWPR contributor in Taraz.