MARAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan — A smile of satisfaction spreads across Dost Mohammad’s face as he exhales a plume of dark smoke.
Until recently, because of a government crackdown, the 50-year-old had been unable to obtain locally produced hashish. Instead, he had to rely on strains produced elsewhere in the country, which he declares 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 anymore, now that the hashish from Mazar-i-Sharif has arrived,” he says, relaxing in a “saqikhana,” a tea house where hash users gather to smoke.
Hashish has long been produced here in Balkh province. But three years ago, a campaign by international and Afghan forces to eradicate the poppy crop used to produce heroin also saw the destruction of the marijuana crop from which the hash was produced.
By the end of 2007, however, farmers were once again growing marijuana plants, sometimes as a replacement crop for the poppy plants that had been destroyed.
Residents of Balkh say production is now flourishing, especially in less accessible parts of the province. The increasing Taliban 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 says. “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, says people were growing cannabis plants in the fields with other crops, such as cotton and corn, to prevent anti-narcotics officials from identifying and destroying them.
Other popular pot-growing areas are along the banks of the Balkh River and wherever the insurgents are in control, he says.
“This year, 1 kilogram of hashish is fetching up to $200,” Azizurrahman says. “People are going to earn a good income.”
Lotfullah Arman Lutfi, who heads the Balkh office of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC, acknowledges that farmers are again opting to grow cannabis, but contends that levels are lower than they were three years ago.
“Our surveys show that farmers are growing cannabis in various parts of the province,” he says. “The reasons are instability, poverty and the rising price of hashish on regional markets.” Lutfi says the U.N. agency has no accurate figures for the area of land currently under cultivation, but Balkh likely produces more than neighboring provinces.
Ahmad Farid Ajezi, the head of the anti-narcotics directorate for Balkh province, acknowledges it is nearly impossible to eradicate the illegal crop.
“We cannot eradicate each and every plant that’s grown in-between ripening crops or in residential houses,” he says.
Meanwhile, the owner of the tea house where users congregate is enjoying the sudden boom in business.
Customer numbers had halved in the past couple of years, he says, but now that Balkh is growing its own cannabis again, demand is picking up and he can charge $3 or $4 a bowl instead of the $2 he had charged before.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Abdul Latif Sahak writes for The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization that trains journalists in areas of conflict. Readers may write to the author at the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, 48 Grays Inn Road, London WC1X 8LT, U.K.; Web site: www.iwpr.net. For information about IWPR’s funding, please go to http://www.iwpr.net/index.pl?top(underscore)supporters.html.
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By ABDUL LATIF SAHAK