Pubdate: Sat, 19 Nov 2005
Source: Watertown Daily Times (NY)
Copyright: 2005 Watertown Daily Times
Author: Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi
Note: Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is a journalist in Afghanistan who writes for The
Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization that trains
journalist in areas of conflict.
Bookmark: (Cannabis)


MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan - Marijuana-growing is an old an
venerable occupation in the northern province of Belkh. The province
is famous for "shirak," 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 marijuana is a normal pastime. The
drug is illegal, but its use is so widespread that the authorities
traditionally turned a blind eye.

Now all that is changing, in the face of a determined government
effort to stamp out narcotics.

Since the fall of the Taliban 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 U.N. report released last year, 90 percent of the
world's heroin originates in Afghanistan.

To combat drug production, the international community has been
financing major eradication programs. The United States alone has
pledged $780 million to the counter-narcotics effort in Afghanistan,
and other counties, 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 the future the cultivation of poppies and
marijuana will be prohibited in this province," said Shair Jan
Durrani, a spokesman for the police headquarters in Balkh.

Marijuana is an easy target for officials determined to show their
commitment to drug eradication. Since poppies are not now in season,
zealous counternarcotics 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
labor 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 marijuana, we
just cut the plant 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
marijuana is much cheaper."

Although they earn only one-quarter of what would make growing
poppies, some farmers have until now preferred to cultivate cannabis
not only because of lower labor costs but also because they believed
they ran less risk of being prosecuted.

"We didn't think it was illegal," claimed 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 marijuana.
This has completely destroyed our lives."

Farmers say they can not 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

"I have never planted poppies, because I'm afraid to - the government
is destroying the poppy fields. So I planted marijuana 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."

Gen. Mohammad Daoud, the deputy interior minister who is the senior
police officer in charge of counternarcotics 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."
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MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin