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UN warns of new highs for Afghan hashish production

Sharif Khoram (AFP) / 26 April 2009

KABUL - Dishevelled and blind in one eye, the 57-year-old hashish dealer has no fear that police might try to stop the trade he conducts from a petrol station on the edge of the dirty Kabul River.

“If you give them 100 afghani (two dollars) and a joint, they would say carry on,” said the man who gives his name as Mahtaabudin.

“I am not afraid of anyone,” he said gruffly, only agreeing to talk after he has lit a cigarette of heady hashish made from cannabis resin which he shares with some of his customers on the station’s verandah.

He admits to some precautions, such as only selling to people he knows, but Mahtaabudin probably does not really need to be too careful.

With authorities concentrating on Afghanistan’s substantial trade in opium, officials admit there is not the time, money or inclination to worry as much about the production of hashish, which the United Nations warns is climbing.

And anyway, Afghan security forces, especially the police, are notorious users of the drug.

“I don’t know how many but there are people using hashish working with army and other organisations,” said deputy counter narcotics minister Mohammad Zafar.

“We have a big problem with opium poppy. This is why we don’t have good data as regards hashish,” he said.

Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the world’s opium, most of it refined into heroin inside the country, an enterprise that earns the extremist Taliban millions of dollars a year for their insurgency against the government.

It is also the world’s second largest source of cannabis resin, producing 1,603 metric tonnes in 2006 after Morocco’s 1,915 tonnes, according to the UN’s World Drug Report 2008.

Afghanistan became famous for its hashish during the 1960s and 1970s when hippies trailed in from Europe en route to Asia, stopping in places now off-limits because of the insurgency, like the southern city of Kandahar.

Cannabis was declared illegal here in the early 1970s but it remains the intoxicant of choice for Afghans, favoured over opium and alcohol.

All are forbidden by Islam and widely frowned on by Afghan society.

The latest UN drug survey in 2005 said 2.2 percent of the population, which it put at 23.8 million, use hashish compared to 0.7 percent for alcohol, 0.6 percent for opium and 0.2 percent for heroin.

The numbers are believed to be considerably higher today with officials regularly warning of growing drug use.

“It was Eid, and we were seven or eight young boys. We went to see an old man in our village who prepared the shisha with hash,”  recalled a 51-year-old labourer who has been smoking for 35 years. ”We laughed so much.”

Now the sallow-faced man, who gives his name as Abdul Latif, says he cannot cope without hashish.

“I have to smoke. If I don’t, I get a headache and stomach pains,” he said, adding that without hashish he cannot sleep.

Latif said he realised at the age of 25 that he had a problem. ”I was losing money, my nerves and my position in society.”

But like many other smokers in Afghanistan, he believes there may be health benefits, including controlling diabetes and lowering cholesterol.

He is also among those who believe smokers are more pious and well-behaved, saying: “If I smoke hash, I know I will not steal, quarrel or be sexually violent.”

But non-users say smokers are moody, short-tempered and violent.

“His eyes were turning red and no one could speak to him,”  recalled a woman named only Arifa, in her 50s, referring to an addicted brother-in-law.

“Everyone, small or big, was terrified by him. He was beating his wife so much that she would be unconscious.”

This man first bought his hash but later planted his own, she said, and it was up to his wife to care for the plants.

Most of Afghanistan’s cannabis is grown in the largely lawless south, also the main opium-growing area, where authorities are battling to assert control.

In 2007 the area under cannabis cultivation (70,000 hectares/173,00 acres) was equal to more than a third of the area planted with opium poppies, both following similar routes to foreign markets, according to the UN.

With Morocco’s production dropping, Afghanistan could take the world’s top spot for cannabis resin supply, the World Drug Report 2008 says.

“There is thought to be vast over-supply of opiates, and prices could fall further any time, prompting a shift to cannabis cultivation,” it says, referring to Afghanistan.

“In addition, there is a functioning illicit drugs market in existence which may be able to accommodate another product efficiently.”

The resin is extracted by rubbing the plant and is pressed in the palm of the hands with water or tea to form small balls or slabs which are transported for sale. Less scrupulous producers are said to add soil or chemicals.

Mahtaabudin said he buys a kilogramme of processed hash for 5,500 afghani (110 dollars) and sells it for 8,000 afghani (160 dollars), most often in small chunks that cost 20 afghani each.

“I sell it to people I know. People send their children. Police buy it,” he said on the verandah, adding of the merits of hashish: ”It can make a person generous and honest.”

 
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