Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Hashish Trade Resurgent in Afghan North
Afghan National Security Forces, assisted by international forces, discovered 1,600 pounds of hashish during patrol in Helmand earlier this year. (Photo: ISAF)
Drawing deeply from a chilim pipe, Dost Mohammad coughed and spluttered as he exhaled plumes of dark smoke, grinning happily despite the tears rolling down his cheeks.
The 50-year-old was delighted that he had finally got hold of the famous kind of marijuana grown around the city of Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan. A government clampdown in Balkh province previously meant the market was dominated by hashish strains from other parts of the country, which he said were inferior.
“Over the past two years we’ve been using hashish from other provinces which hurt our chests, but God willing, we won’t have this problem any more, now that the hashish from Mazar-e Sharif has arrived,” he said, relaxing in a “saqikhana”, a tea-house where users gather to smoke the drug.
Although production is illegal, the cannabis grown in Balkh has long been prized throughout Afghanistan for its quality.
Three years ago, a successful eradication campaign by international and Afghan forces virtually wiped out opium poppy cultivation in the province.
Initially, the campaign meant that cannabis cultivation was substantially reduced as well. But the effects were short-lived so that by the end of 2007, cannabis farming was rising again, often as a replacement for opium poppies.
Residents of Balkh say production is now flourishing, especially in less accessible parts of the province. The increasing Taleban presence in the north and the security problems that go with it have made it easier for farmers to avoid raids by the police.
Juma Khan, a resident of Nawshahr, a village in Chamtal district, says he has a large cannabis crop this year, and is not worried that government security forces might come and destroy it.
“Cultivation is going on in places the police can’t go,” he said. “There are districts where dozens of polling stations were closed because of instability [in the September parliamentary election], so how can the police go there and destroy cannabis fields?”
Other farmers have developed creative ways of avoiding detection.
Azizurrahman, also from Chamtal, said people were growing cannabis plants in the fields with other crops like cotton and corn so as to prevent anti-narcotics officials from identifying and destroying them.
Other popular areas were along the banks of the river Balkh and wherever the insurgents were in control, he said.
“This year, one kilogram of hashish is fetching up to 200 [US] dollars,” Azizurrahman said. “People are going to earn a good income.”
A farmer called Azizullah blamed the authorities for failing to support other forms of agriculture.
“The government and NGOs have repeatedly promised assistance to farmers, but this help has never come. Instead, the price of food and other important items has gone up, and this has compelled farmers to go for hashish cultivation,” he said.
Lotfullah Arman Lutfi, who heads the Balkh office of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC, said that farmers were again opting to grow cannabis, but levels were still lower than they were three years ago.
“Our surveys show that farmers are growing cannabis in various parts of the province,” he said. “The reasons are instability, poverty and the rising price of hashish on regional markets.”
Lutfi said UNODC had no accurate figures for the area of land currently under cultivation, but said Balkh was likely to be producing more than neighbouring provinces.
Local government officials acknowledge that cannabis farming is on the rise, but are keen to downplay the extent of its cultivation.
Speaking to journalists as part of an anti-hashish event aimed at farmers, Ahmad Farid Ajezi, the head of the anti-narcotics directorate for Balkh province, claimed that cultivation was localised.
“We cannot eradicate each and every plant that’s grown in between ripening crops or in residential houses,” he said, adding that if any fields were located they would be destroyed.
Ajezi admitted that security problems had made it impossible to gather comprehensive data on cultivation patterns.
“There was no cannabis cultivation in previous years, and cultivation levels now are not so high as to cause concern,” he said.
Asked why he felt an awareness-raising event was needed if cultivation levels really were so low, Ajezi said it was a preventive measure.
General Asmatullah Alizai, commander-in-chief of the Balkh police, said his forces were well capable of destroying cannabis crops, as long as they had them pointed out to them.
“If farmers have been cultivating cannabis, they must be identified by the anti-narcotics directive so that the plants can be destroyed and the owners dealt with according to the law,” he said.
The head of Balkh’s drug treatment hospital, Dr Ratiab, said addiction rates were growing in the province.
“The number of patients admitted to our hospital this year shows a 30 per cent increase on last year,” he said.
Habibullah, owner of a saqikhana where users congregate, confirmed the recent surge in popularity of the drug.
Customer numbers had halved in the past couple of years, he said, but now that Balkh was growing its own cannabis again, demand was picking up and he could charge three or four dollars for a chilim instead of two dollars for one containing the standard hashish.
Abdul Latif Sahak is an IWPR-trained reporter in Balkh region.
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