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Afghanistan: Cannabis Next Target in War on Drugs

Farmers in the north are up in arms over a government programme to stamp out cannabis.

Cannabis-growing is an old and venerable occupation in the northern province of Balkh. The province is famous for “shirak”, a high-quality hashish made by experts and marketed inside Afghanistan. Friday nights are traditional shirak-party nights, where relaxing with a pipe or a bong and some local is a normal pastime. The drug is illegal, but its use is so widespread that the authorities have traditionally turned a blind eye.

Now all of that is changing, in the face of a determined government effort to stamp out narcotics. Since the fall of the Taleban in 2001, surging cultivation of opium poppies, from which heroin is produced, has led western governments to warn that Afghanistan is in danger of becoming a narco-state. According to a United Nations report released last year, some 90 per cent of the world’s heroin originates in Afghanistan.

To combat drug production, the international community has been generously funding major eradication programmes. The United States alone has pledged 780 million US dollars to the counter-narcotics effort in Afghanistan, and other countries, most prominently Britain, are contributing funds and troops to assist in the campaign. The campaign has so far yielded modest results. While a great deal of land has been taken out of poppy cultivation in some provinces, higher yields in other regions have kept production fairly steady, according to international studies.

One of the provinces where production has risen is Balkh. Officials estimate that poppy production here has tripled in recent years, and the regional administration is under pressure to show some results. That has led to the all-out war against all illicit drugs, including the cannabis plant. "We are taking action as a sign to farmers that we have started our campaign, and that in future the cultivation of poppies and marijuana will be prohibited in this province," said Shair Jan Durrani, spokesman for the police headquarters in Balkh. Responsibility for the eradication campaign, he said, has been given to the local police force, "Our police have been given the equipment necessary to completely wipe out poppy and cannabis farmlands." Cannabis is an easy target for officials determined to show their commitment to drug eradication. Since poppies are not now in season, zealous counter-narcotics forces can expend their energy on cannabis, which is harvested from October to December.

Farmers say cultivating cannabis has several advantages over opium poppies. It is easier to grow and store than the poppy plant, which is labour intensive and requires a trained workforce. Cannabis has a shorter growing season, and compressed hashish is quite compact and can be easily shipped. Cannabis also uses less irrigation water, an important consideration in Afghanistan’s drought-plagued climate. It is also easier to gather. "When it’s time to harvest cannabis, we just cut the plants and store them in a dry place. After that, we shake the plants so the seeds fall off," said Mohammad Nazar, a farmer in Balkh. "We don’t need to hire workers, like we do for poppies, so hashish is much cheaper."

Although they earn only one-quarter of what they would make growing poppies, some farmers have until now preferred to cultivate cannabis not only because of lower labour costs, but also because they believed they ran less risk of being prosecuted. "We didn’t think it was illegal," claims Mohammad Jan, 55, a farmer in Balkh province whose cannabis fields have been destroyed. "The government was only eradicating poppies in past years." Particularly irksome to Mohammad Jan and other farmers is the fact that the government waited until October, when they were harvesting, to start destroying the plant. "We’ve lost a year’s work," complained Mohammad Jan. "If the government had given us warning, we wouldn’t have planted cannabis. This has completely destroyed our lives."

Farmers say they cannot support their families if they grow legitimate crops.

"If I take my annual yield of wheat to market and sell it, I make barely enough for one week’s outgoings," said Fazel Rahman, a farmer in the Chahar Bolak district of Balkh. "We are not allowed to plant poppies or cannabis, but the government is not helping us find other seeds to plant. So we have to leave the country in order to earn our bread. I have never planted poppies, because I’m afraid to - the government is destroying the poppy fields. So I planted cannabis on one or two acres instead. The money I make is enough to support my family and me for a year. Now the government has destroyed our marijuana fields, and winter is coming. We have no income to live on."

General Mohammad Daoud, the deputy interior minister who is the senior police officer in charge of counter-narcotics work, said the government will not tolerate the cultivation of any narcotic plants. Daoud took a trip to Balkh in mid-October, presumably to signal the government’s renewed commitment to drug eradication in the province. "The government is determined to prohibit the sowing of seeds for poppy or marijuana plants as a first step," he said. "If anyone does cultivate these plants, his fields will be destroyed. Finally, the government is going to stop the trafficking of narcotics."

According to Counter-Narcotics Minister Habibullah Qaderi, Balkh follows close behind Kandahar and Helmand for poppy cultivation, so the government in Kabul is going to bring increased pressure to bear on local officials. "Due to the increased poppy cultivation in Balkh, the government is going to send a team to talk to the provincial governor so as to draw a plant to put a stop to it," he said. But Qaderi insisted that the government is also sensitive to the plight of farmers, "This team has financial and technical resources, and in addition to eradication they will take note of the needs of farmers and will act to solve their problems."

By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi(ARR No. 194, 13-Nov-05). Ibrahimi is an IWPR reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.

published Saturday 26 November 2005 02:57

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