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April 1, 2010 -- TIME Magazine (US)

Afghanistan's New Bumper Drug Crop: Cannabis

By Vivienne Walt

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It's hardly news that Afghanistan's huge opium crops supply more than 90% of the world's heroin. But now U.N. officials say Afghanistan is also the world's biggest producer of another drug -- hashish. In its first attempt to calculate how much cannabis is grown in the country, the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime says in a report released in Kabul on Wednesday that Afghan farmers earned up to $94 million last year from selling 1,500 to 3,500 tons of hash -- the resin extracted from cannabis crops.

U.S. and NATO officials believe that at least part of this revenue goes to insurgent groups to finance their attacks against coalition forces in southern Afghanistan, where almost all of the 139 soldiers killed this year have died. The report found that farmers grow about 42,000 acres (17,000 hectares) of cannabis in half of the country's 34 provinces -- largely in the south. That is where Afghanistan's most fertile land is, the report says, and its rich soil produces an "astonishing yield" of potent hashish of about 320 lb. (about 145 kg) per hectare (about 2.5 acres) -- more than three times the yield from cannabis grown in Morocco, another big hash producer.

"Afghanistan is using some of its best land to grow cannabis," says Antonia Maria Costa, director of the U.N. drug office in Vienna. "If they grew wheat instead, insurgents would not have money to buy weapons and the international community would not have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on food aid."

That might be true. But the U.N.'s findings show how daunting a task it is for Afghan and NATO officials to persuade thousands of farmers to switch from growing drugs to growing food. Farmers can earn about three times as much money growing cannabis as growing wheat: about $3,900 per hectare, compared with $1,200 per hectare.

What's more, cannabis is even more lucrative to grow than opium poppies, which yield about $3,600 per hectare. It's also far cheaper to grow cannabis than poppies, requiring little sophisticated cultivation. The report says it is an almost ideal crop for desperately poor farmers, who lack fertilizers and tractors and who need every penny they can squeeze from their land. Because of this, the farmers have not been deterred by a government ban on growing hash. "The high sale price of cannabis and the relatively low costs of cultivation were the most frequently mentioned reasons for cultivating cannabis," says the report.

Despite the new U.N. findings, Afghan and NATO forces are unlikely to start trying to eradicate the cannabis crops, in part because Western policies over the past several years aimed at eradicating Afghanistan's mammoth opium crops are widely regarded by U.S. officials as having failed miserably. Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, told G-8 leaders in Italy last year that the antidrug efforts in Afghanistan "did not result in any damage to the Taliban, but they put farmers out of work."

Worse, many believe the policies have helped stoke the Taliban's war against the coalition by uniting residents against the Afghan soldiers who destroyed their opium crops. "Eradicating marijuana and opium fields can breed resentment by people and be destabilizing," says John Dempsey, a rule-of-law adviser to U.S. and Afghan officials for the U.S. Institute of Peace.

He cites the town of Marjah, in Helmand province, where U.S. forces rolled tanks over poppy fields in a major offensive in February, two years after Afghan forces destroyed the local farmers' opium crops. After those antidrug offensives, Dempsey says, "local residents felt they preferred the Taliban, because they let them grow opium." About 70% of the farmers surveyed by local U.N. workers in 20 largely Taliban-controlled provinces said they paid about 10% of their earnings to the local forces that controlled their areas.

Dempsey believes farmers could be better persuaded to give up growing opium and cannabis if Western and Afghan officials introduced big incentives and subsidies for growing food crops and helped farmers sell them. One crucial problem, he says, is that the roads in southern Afghanistan are too dangerous for farmers to drive their crops to local markets. Groups of armed drug traffickers, meanwhile, travel through the countryside, buying opium and cannabis at the farm gates for cash. For many farmers in the area, making a living and staying alive -- sadly -- go hand in hand.

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