Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kazakstan: Cannabis Factory Scheme Slated

Kazaks are unimpressed with unorthodox government scheme to curb the country's growing drugs problem.
By Eduard Poletaev

The Kazak authorities think they've come up with a novel way to deal with the scourge of drugs - turn them into something useful.


To this end the government has decided to build a complex of four factories which, it hopes, will transform cannabis into building tiles, super-strong hemp fibres and animal feed, providing massive employment.


But the scheme has many critics, who fear it will be mishandled and fail to address the growing problem of drug addiction in the country.


Controversy also surrounds the source of funding for the project. The authorities say they are not planning to foot any of the 70 million US dollar bill, but are reluctant to say who will. Officials have only revealed that a German company is involved.


Nonetheless, the authorities are confident the complex will be completed by 2003, employ 20,000 people and contribute significantly to the war against narcotics.


Kazakstan not only possesses enormous reserves of cannabis but is also a transit country for the transport of drugs from Afghanistan to Europe. Official statistics say the country has 43,000-registered drug addicts although narcotics specialists believe the number could be up to 10 times higher.


Wild cannabis grows abundantly in Kazakstan, especially in the Chu valley, where all attempts to destroy the crop have failed. This fertile area, roughly the size of the Netherlands, has for decades attracted drug addicts and drug dealers from the former USSR.


The Soviet authorities, in their day, and later the Kazak government struggled vainly to block the drugs trade. They patrolled the Chu valley with helicopters cars and motorcycles, set up police checkpoints at every main railway station and highway junction but still the drugs flowed through. Powerful herbicides and flamethrowers were deployed but the plants kept stubbornly growing.


While the authorities trumpet the benefits of their project, many ordinary people show little enthusiasm, believing it is far too ambitious and unlikely to curb the drug problem.


"I can just imagine how guards will line up around the Chu valley, while 20,000 people work without rest, to provide the entire population with hemp shirts and jeans," mocked entrepreneur, Sergei Buravchenko.


Doctor Anna Shchurova said, "I do not think the government will be able to quell drug addiction. Corruption will soon start to flourish. Raw cannabis will be stolen and sold on the streets."


Student Alexandra Krylova said, "Cannabis use is very common among young people. They don't regard it as a drug because it doesn't cause physical addiction. If the project stops supplies of cannabis from the Chu valley, kids will just turn to harder drugs like heroin and cocaine."


Outside government circles, the only real supporters of the project are the police and the unemployed.


"I encounter drug-addiction in my job every day and I am very glad that a real opportunity will arise to deprive criminal groups of their economic incentive," said officer Kanat Aslanov.


Pavel Silvestrov, who's unemployed, said, "Even if the drug problem is not solved I will at least have a job which is more than I have had for the past three years."


Eduard Poletaev and Erbol Jumagulov are IWPR contributors in Kazakstan


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