A Glimpse Into Afghanistan’s Traditional Cannabis Culture

Despite its ancient connections to cannabis and its history as a destination on the hippie trail in the mid 20th Century, Afghanistan has been a place few people have traveled to since the Soviets invaded in the late 1970s. Afghanistan is now less accessible than ever, as the political situation keeps on deteriorating after decades of war and instability. But after thoughtful planning, in October 2019, I found myself in the passenger seat of a Toyota Corolla, driving the desert plains down the Himalayan foothills, towards the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, home of the famous Afghan hashish.

Arriving in Mazar-i-Sharif on a sunny October afternoon, I felt at first a bit like I was in a fantasy, visiting the famous Blue Mosque and a lively bazaar with delicious street food and smelling hashish fumes here and there. While I changed money, got a SIM card and checked into a small hotel room with a view, I kept my enthusiasm to check out the legendary hashish scene quite high.

As the sun went down, I stepped out of my hotel, but the manager advised me not to go too far. The colorful streets had turned into dark alleys illuminated by fruit stalls, with sellers screaming prices per kilos to passerby rushing home before night.

Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan.

I had come to Mazar-i-Sharif for two months to work on a book about contemporary Afghan cannabis culture. On that first night and on the days that followed, I felt the country’s palpable political tension and saw heartbreaking reminders of how over half of Afghanistan’s residents live in abject poverty, but through photographing the local hashish scene, I also witnessed the resiliency of tradition in the face of such challenges.

Growing Cannabis in Afghanistan

What I quickly discovered upon arrival in Mazar-i-Sharif is that a few cannabis plants can be seen in the city center in people’s yards and houses. But once you reach the outskirts of the city, they become more and more apparent on the edges of cotton fields. It is still an illegal plant in Afghanistan, and some farmers complain that the government pressure to uphold the law is higher than ever, so harvesting the plants earlier and growing in inner courtyards seem to be common practice to ensure a successful crop. While some farmers had already harvested when I arrived in October, a few fields were still standing in early December before I left.

Each cannabis field I saw showed an amazing diversity of shapes, colors and fragrances. Afghans select cannabis plants that produce large amounts of resin, using the seeds from their pollinated plants, just like it has been done for millenniums.

A hashish maker collects resin after sieving.

Once dry, the plants are sieved to collect the resinous powder, which is turned into a refined hashish after pressing. By combining the genetic diversity of a single field, and from one valley to another, alongside the diversity of growing, sieving and curing techniques specific to each farmer, Afghan hashish remains a traditional product that reflects its terroir and conveys a sense of place.

Smoking Cannabis in Afghanistan

A popular way of consuming hashish in Afghanistan is with a type of hookah that locals call a “chillum,” not to be confused with the hand pipe with an end-to-end open channel called a chillum in the rest of the world. Groups of friends gather in “chillum khana” to share one for a fee, and cannabis farmers often invite their friends around to share some green tea and a chillum.

In the nearby city of Balkh to the west of Mazar-i-Sharif, people visit the shrine of Baba Ku Mastan, where for a little donation, a care-taker lights up a chillum with hashish and pronounces the following words: ‘Baba Ku Mastan, your grave is a flower garden, be it summer or winter.’

A local smokes a chillum.

Baba Ku is a mythological figure who, according to legend, is the one who brought cannabis to Afghanistan.

In my time in Afghanistan, I came to realize the importance of holding on to cannabis traditions so that they remain in practice, rather than letting them slide into legend along with Baba Ku.

As costly innovations to create cannabis extracts become the norm in the Western cannabis market, traditional ways of processing the plant could become myths — erasing centuries of informal knowledge, genetics and craftsmanship — if they are ignored.

This story was originally published in the print edition of Cannabis Now.

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After The Puff Settles: Taliban and Cannabis

What’s the relationship between cannabis and the Taliban? August 30, 2021, marked the day the US left Afghanistan after a twenty-year-long campaign. Just like a body with a physical dependency suddenly being cut off, Afghanistan went into withdrawal as the entire world held its breath. With the Taliban poised to take over the country and […]

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What Taliban Rule Means for Afghanistan’s Drug Trade

Hashish and opium have fueled war in Afghanistan since the ‘80s, when the CIA-backed Mujahideen rebels turned to the drug trade to fund their insurgency against the Soviet forces then occupying the country.

In 1989, the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, and in 1992 a new government was established by Mujahideen warlords who continued to protect their drug empires, while also fighting each other. In 1994, the ultra-fundamentalist Taliban militia was born, pledging to restore order, portraying the warlords as corrupt drug dealers. After taking power in 1996, the Taliban made a great show of destroying opium and cannabis crops—for which it received praise and aid from the UN Office on Drugs & Crime (UNODC).

After Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. invaded, backing the Mujahideen who were fighting the Taliban—and, again, funding their insurgency with opium and hash. But after the Taliban were driven from power in November 2001, the tables were turned. 

The new U.S.-backed Afghan government was now under pressure to eradicate—while the Taliban found the drug trade an irresistible means of funding their new insurgency. That trade has boomed as the Taliban has pursued their offensive this year.

A Taliban Narco-State?

On Aug. 14, a day before the Taliban took Kabul, the international financial website MoneyControl headlined: “A new narco-state is blossoming in Afghanistan under the Taliban.”

According to the UNODC’s 2020 Afghanistan Opium Survey, the area under poppy cultivation expanded from 163,000 hectares to 224,000 hectares that year. This was overwhelmingly in areas under Taliban control.

In 2018, the UNODC estimated that the country’s opiate economy was “worth between 6 and 11 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP and it exceeded the value of the country’s officially recorded licit exports of goods and services.” 

As the capital Kabul fell to the insurgents this past weekend, a Reuters report reminded us: “Afghanistan’s illegal drug trade a boon for Taliban.” It recalled the $8 billion spent by the U.S. over the past 20 years to wipe out the psychoactive crops—funding eradication campaigns and even carrying out air strikes on suspected drug labs.

The effort failed.

“The Taliban have counted on the Afghan opium trade as one of their main sources of income,” Cesar Gudes, head of UNODC’s Kabul office, told Reuters. “More production brings drugs with a cheaper and more attractive price, and therefore a wider accessibility.”

With the insurgents advancing on the capital, “these are the best moments in which these illicit groups tend to position themselves” to expand their business, Gudes said. 

This view of a narco-insurgency is shared by Washington officials. A March 2021 report from the Pentagon’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (SIGAR) quoted a U.S. military intelligence official who “estimated that between 40 to 60 percent of the Taliban’s revenue comes from narcotics trafficking.” 

Contacted by Reuters for comment, a State Department official said the U.S. will continue to support the Afghan people, “including our ongoing counter-narcotics efforts,” but declined to make clear how this would happen with the Taliban in power. 

Blood Hashish 

The Taliban’s revenue-raising model is largely one of taxation, and narco-crops constitute the main economic activity to tax. Cultivators are made to pay a cut to local Taliban commanders in exchange for protection from government eradication efforts—a tactic guerillas have long resorted to in Colombia, Peru, Burma and elsewhere. 

And while opium for heroin production is the big-ticket item in terms of revenues, cannabis for hashish production is thoroughly a part of this system and constitutes a secondary revenue stream. 

In December 2017, a NATO Special Operations Command press release boasted of seizing and destroying a “Taliban drug cache” in the Logar province: 34 tons of “raw hashish” (cannabis plants, presumably) and 300 kilograms of “processed hashish.”

Hashish, as well as opium and processed heroin, were said to be among “13 tons of narcotic drugs” burned by Afghan security forces near Jalalabad this Aug. 11—just days before the city was taken by the Taliban.

With an estimated 29,000 hectares under cannabis cultivation, Afghanistan is placed by the UNODC’s 2020 World Drug Report second only to Morocco as the world’s top producer of “cannabis resin” (hashish). Pakistan and Lebanon were next in line. 

While Afghan heroin floods European markets, the hashish is more for distribution within the region—but some of this too is reaching the West. The UNODC writes: “The cannabis resin produced in these countries is principally destined for other countries in the Near and Middle East/South-West Asia, although cannabis resin originating in Afghanistan has also been identified in Central Asia, Eastern Europe and Western and Central Europe.” 

ISIS Steals the Prohibitionist Fire

As the world waits to see if the Taliban, restored to power, will return to their tyrannical ultra-fundamentalist rule, worse things still may be waiting in the wings. Over the past five years, fighters loyal to the Islamic State, or ISIS, have seized pieces of Afghanistan’s territory.  

Posing themselves a yet more extremist, the ISIS presence in Afghanistan has been portraying the Taliban as corrupt drug dealers. Ironically, ISIS (calling itself the Islamic State’s “Khorasan Province”) has eradicated poppy and cannabis crops—putting fields to the flame, just like the government it claimed to oppose. ISIS similarly burned cannabis fields when it was in power in northern Syria.

The stage may be set for a Taliban narco-state fighting an insurgency by the anti-drug ISIS. 

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