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Afghanistan: Cannabis is the new drug of choice for Afghanistan's

Nick Meo in Balkh province

Times On-Line

Friday 07 Dec 2007

Cannabis is the new drug of choice for Afghanistan's former opium poppy

Where opium poppies used to colour the plains of northern Afghanistan,
towering cannabis plants now sway in the wind, filling the air with
their pungent odour.

Farmers in Balkh province were banned from cultivating opium last year
and have switched to another cash crop, a rich source of income that is
still tolerated by the authorities.

Balkh's burgeoning hashish industry does not pay farmers quite as much
as the heroin factories used to for good-quality opium. But the rich
black cannabis resin produced around the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif
still pays about four times the price of cotton or wheat. It is highly
prized by Afghan usersand is exported in large quantities to Pakistan
and Europe.

Growing cannabis is nothing new for Afghan farmers, but the opium
clampdown has transformed a minor cash crop into big business. The 2007
annual report of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimated a 40 per
cent rise in Afghanistan's cannabis production this year from 50,000
hectares (123,550 acres) last year to 70,000 hectares this year.
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The switch from opium to cannabis is the latest embarrassment to Western
attempts at eradication. It also illustrates the desperation of poor

Western officials are deeply concerned that the booming drugs trade is
funding the insurgency against Nato troops and driving corruption that
undermines the Government in Kabul.

The UN report has found that Afghanistan now produces 93 per cent of the
world's opium, mostly in the southern provinces. It highlighted poppy
eradication in Balkh as a rare bright spot. But the gloss was tarnished
by Balkh's cannabis problem.

This week, as gusts of snow blew in from the north, farmers were busily
harvesting their plants in the flat, wintery landscape around
Mazar-i-Sharif near the border with Uzbekistan.

Roadside stores keep hashish hidden among the onions and biscuits,
producing thin sticks or sheets for users who drive out from
Mazar-i-Sharif. “It is the best quality in Afghanistan,” one shopkeeper
said with a lazy smile. “I don't keep opium any more because it is too
much trouble. But hashish is good business.”

Unlike opium, cannabis is smoked by some farmers without serious social
consequences. “The only thing is there seem to be more layabouts now
that we grow so much cannabis.” one said.

Muhammad Qol, 44, said that nearly three quarters of his income came
from cannabis. He said: “We don't smoke it, and we know it is a sin and
against Islam. But my family needs the money and the Government stopped
us from growing opium, so what can we do? We are saving up for a Toyota
Corolla. Everyone else has a car these days. Why shouldn't poor farmers
like us have one?”

Some Western officials try to look on the bright side. One said: “At
least they've gone from producing hard drugs to soft drugs. It's
progress, sort of.”





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