Opium Out, Hashish In Across Northern Province

The northern province of Balkh was deemed poppy-free, but now industrious farmers are turning to another cash crop - marijuana.

Opium Out, Hashish In Across Northern Province

The northern province of Balkh was deemed poppy-free, but now industrious farmers are turning to another cash crop - marijuana.

First, the good news. In June, the Afghan government announced that the northern province of Balkh had stopped growing opium poppy.

Balkh joined 12 other provinces as certified poppy-free zones, a designation which brings with it assurances of increased assistance and development.

But farmers and local officials say the opium poppies have been replaced with marijuana (or cannabis) plants, cultivation of which has increased at a precipitous rate.

“The government has banned opium poppy,” said Nazar Gul, a 54-year-old farmer in Charbolak district. “Now we have started to plant marijuana, which is also good for us.”

Other crops would not meet his family’s expenses, insisted Nazar Gul.

“I planted poppy last year, but soldiers came to our house to warn us that if we grew it, they’d destroy our homes. What could we do? The best way out was to switch to marijuana, and I hope to make good money this year, too.”

Marijuana is not as lucrative as opium, he added, but it is still far ahead of any legal crop.

“For us farmers, poppy is gold and marijuana is silver,” he said.

The province is famed for its high-quality hashish - known as “Balkh shirak”.

Atta Mohammad Noor, the provincial governor, admits that this alternative crop is on the rise in Balkh.

“People did not plant poppy this year, but it seems marijuana has taken its place,” he said.

No specific statistics were available as yet, he added, and the government had few tools with which to combat the new problem.

"Our counter-narcotics department has plans in hand for eradicating marijuana in the province, but who is going to pay for it?" he asked.

The governor complained that central government had not allocated a budget for eradicating marijuana, and had not even remunerated his administration for the work it did to stamp out poppy, including the costs of a commission that worked with farmers to stop growing that crop.

“We cleared 64,000 jeribs [128 square kilometers] of opium poppy last year,” he said. “Every year, the international community announces that it is spending millions of dollars on counter-narcotics but we haven’t seen a dime of that money.”

With no funds to curb marijuana production, the plants can be seen growing everywhere in Balkh, even along highways which government and foreign military vehicles use all the time.

While the government dithers, farmers are making a killing.

According to farmer Nazar Gul, he can harvest 50 to 100 pounds of hashish from each jerib of land (22-50 dollars per 2,000 square metres), and he expects to make 70,000 afghanis, the equivalent of 1,400 dollars, from his entire crop.

The price of hashish differs according to type and quality.

According to Mohammad Muhsan, a farmer in Charbolak district, they sort the harvest into two grades, the high-quality shirak and the rest termed “khaka” or “dust”.

“We can reap about 40 pounds of shirak and 80 pounds of khaka from each jerib,” said Muhsan. “Each pound of shirak is worth about 1,000 afghani [20 dollars], while a pound of khaka goes for 500 afghani.”

“Marijuana is a very good crop,” he continued. “We get five times more money from it than from wheat.”

Still, it lags behind opium, he complained, explaining that he used to harvest about 20 kilograms of opium from one jerib of land, and normally earned 100 dollars a kilo, sometimes 200 dollars.

Farmers say that marijuana has the advantage of being less labour-intensive than opium.

“We used to have to spend half of what we made just to produce the opium,” explained Ahmad Shah, a farmer in Chamtal district. “We had to weed the fields and we also had to spend a lot on harvesting. With marijuana, you just plant it, water it a little and then harvest it like wheat. It does not take so much work or money.”

Marijuana is planted in April and May and harvested in November and December, according to farmers.

“The harvested hashish is raw. We often sell this to traffickers and then it’s up to them what to do with it,” said Ahmad Shah. “As far as I know, if the traffickers want to sell the hashish inside Afghanistan, they process or cook it. For smuggling abroad, they use both raw and processed hashish.”

A trafficker in Charbolak district who did not want to be named said it was easier to smuggle the processed hashish.

“I purchase several sacks of hashish from farmers up here and then send it to the south to sell to major traffickers,” he said. “Hashish is mostly smuggled to Pakistan, Iran and Tajikistan, and from these countries it is sent to Europe and other parts of the world. Balkh shirak hashish is very famous around the globe.”

The trafficker said that having a bumper crop this year has had its downside, “The price of hashish seems to be falling day by day. This is because of two major factors - one, cultivation of marijuana has increased; and second, the government has imposed some restrictions and set up security checkpoints, so people think it is too difficult to smuggle.”

In Balkh itself, people are proud of their local product and see no need to hide it.

The bazaar in the village of Alam Khil is an old and venerable institution whose ancient shops mostly sell the local speciality.

“We divide the hashish into small pieces called ‘tali’,” explained a shopkeeper who did not give his name. “Each piece costs from 10 to 100 afghani [20 cents to two dollars].”

The buyers are mostly young men with a little spare cash, he added.

“We sell the hashish to free-spending young men, who think nothing of paying five or ten afghani,” he said. “We are retailers and we make good money. Selling this way, we get about 2,000 afghani [40 dollars] for a pound of hashish.

The shopkeeper went on to boast of his wares, saying, “The hashish I sell is very famous. People come to me from all over the country. I even sell to foreigners.”

He showed IWPR’s reporter a piece of hashish weighing about 50 grams wrapped in plastic foil. “This costs about 200 afghani. It will make anybody who smokes it just fall down,” he said with pride.

Afghanistan’s counter-narcotics ministry says it will take as tough a stand on hashish as it did on opium.

“We are committed to getting rid of all types of narcotics in Afghanistan,” said ministry spokesman Zalmay Afzali. “We are planning on eradicating marijuana in the provinces.”

He added that no final figures were available for levels of marijuana cultivation in Balkh, but added, “We will fight it as we did with poppy.”

The governor, still citing cash problems, was not so sure.

“We obey the orders of central government and we consider it our duty to eradicate narcotics,” said Noor. “But this is really difficult to do without a budget.”

Afzali acknowledged that the Balkh administration had not been paid for its anti-poppy campaign, but insisted the money would show up eventually.

”The Afghan government and the international community will definitely give the money they promised, but there have been some technical problems in delivering the money to some provinces,” he said. “We are not living in America or Britain where there is a very well-developed banking system.”

Meanwhile, Balkh’s landowners are moving ahead with plans for the harvest, and are keeping one uneasy eye on law-enforcement officers.

“The government should just leave us alone to live our lives,” said farmer Ghulam Nabi. “They promised they would help us if we stopped growing poppy, but they have done nothing so far. We suffered very big losses. Now we are looking forward to the marijuana crop.”

He warned, “If the government destroys our fields, we will be completely ruined. My family and I will throw ourselves under the tractor. They will have to drive over us first.”

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.

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