Afghanistan was once known for producing world-class hashish. What does the future hold?
In the middle of the night, in mountains northwest of Kabul, Afghanistan, where American bombs and missiles have fallen like acid rain, a young man named Mahmoud is arranging a shipment of precious, psychoactive agricultural merchandise.
Impoverished Afghanistan, home to 25 million oppressed people, demonized and flattened by war, lacking permanent water supplies, surrounded by hostile neighbors who shut out its refugees, has long been an important source of quality cannabis products. India, Iran, Pakistan, Kashmir, Nepal, Afghanistan and most other nations in this region have marijuana traditions that span centuries and embody the highest arts of cannabis production, processing, and consumption.
Mahmoud’s cargo is one of the last shipments of Afghani hashish to leave the country before September 11, 2001. His commodity is a five hundred pound collection of hashish slates. The individual slates, about the size of a book, are chocolate-colored on the outside, reddish brown on the inside, wrapped in plastic and tape, weighing between 250 and 800 grams each.
The resin powder used to produce them was gathered from short, tenacious Indicas grown in isolated semi-arid areas in Afghanistan. Some of the powder is collected and formed into hashish in Afghanistan, but the Afghan powder is also processed in regions of Pakistan such as Kurram, Orakzai and Tirah.
The slates are then dispatched on an odyssey that may take them through Tajikistan and Russia, or through Pakistan and India. The shipment might travel via caravan through tribal areas, headed for Baluchistan, where it will exit Pakistan into Iran. It might also travel through Central Asian republics.
Eventually, after the slates have been transported and handled by a variety of methods, including mules, camels, trucks, and intermediaries, they arrive in Europe, primarily to be sold in Dutch coffee shops for six to eight US dollars per gram.
Today’s Afghani hash is considered a mid-grade product, slightly inferior to primo traditional hashish from Morocco, Nepal, India, and Europe. It is only about 40% as potent as the newest types of hashish, such as Ice-O-Later, Nederhash, and Bubblehash, that are made using technology and modern quality control that results in a far purer product than can be produced by farmers and processors in desert countries like Afghanistan.
Yet, during the 1960’s and early 70’s, Afghani hash was considered the best available. Cultivation of squat, rugged, phat-leaved Indica plants, which cannabists now call "Hindu Kush," "Afghani," and "Hashplant" became prevalent during this era; some ethnobotanists say Afghanistan’s earlier cannabis farmers mostly grew Sativa varieties.
According to cannabis pioneer Wernard Bruining, who created Holland’s first coffee shop nearly 30 years ago, Western hippies collected Afghan marijuana seeds and spread them across the world in the 1970’s, most notably to Northern California, where the seeds became genetic precursors for many of today’s most popular cannabis cultivars.
"People who we call ‘the early Skunk pioneers’ were experimenting with these Afghani seeds," says Bruining, whose Positronics seed bank was one of the earliest to offer a large menu of international marijuana seeds. "Afghan plants were highly sought after because they grew fast and short, were hardy, and produced huge tops full of resin. Some of them had the characteristic skunky smell and powerful body high that now identifies varieties known as ‘Skunk.’"
Afghani hash was known for its sticky, resiny, unadulterated color and texture, its sweet, tangy taste, and its narcotic, dream-inducing high. Before US anti-drug pressure changed Afghanistan’s cannabis policies in 1974, super-potent connoisseur hashish was available at teahouses inside Afghanistan, and as exported fingers, sticks, hooves, half moons, slabs and bricks that had a wide array of colors, tastes, and cannabinoid profiles.
Foreign cartels, including drug networks from North America, purchased tons of Afghan hashish and resin powder, using the substances to produce and market what came to be known as "honey oil," a highly-refined, amber-colored fluid that was often two to three times as potent as hashish.
Farmers in many parts of Afghanistan used primitive methods such as hand irrigation and fertilization techniques to produce resin glands for the burgeoning industry. It’s not easy work, because most of the country is barren desert, with marginal soils, inadequate and unpredictable water supplies, dry, hot summers and harsh winters.
Huge fields of cannabis, surrounded by huts, barns and other buildings where resin powder was stored and processed, were seen near the southern city of Kandahar, in Central Afghanistan, and around the north-central city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
As this article is being written, US forces are using aerial bombardment and ground troops against Afghan Taliban government strongholds in Kabul, Kandahar and Mazar-i-Sharif. It may well be the first time that a global war machine has attacked a city that is so linked to marijuana that it has a variety of marijuana named after it – as advertised in the Marc Emery seed catalog, "Mazar-i-Sharif" is a potent Afghani crossbred with a classic "Skunk #1" variety.
|Morrocan oil hash
The modern history of Afghanistan is permeated with cannabis and conflict. The British ran the country for decades before they were kicked out in 1919, but the country was relatively stable during the reign of King Mohammad Zahir Shah, a pro-cannabis monarch who governed Afghanistan from 1933 until he was overthrown by a jealous relative in 1973.
According to reports from US spy agencies and Afghan sources in Holland, the King offered armed protection and horticultural advice to marijuana growers, encouraging them to increase their yield with modern fertilization techniques. The ruler’s top aides were allegedly involved in overt hashish smuggling. DEA officials even allege that the King’s private jet was used to smuggle tons of hashish to Italy and other European countries.
After King Zahir Shah was deposed, the US began sabotaging the Afghan cannabis industry, beginning a series of intermittent drug wars in Afghanistan. The US paid Afghan governments millions of dollars to eradicate cannabis crops and hash producers beginning in the mid-1970’s. The elimination of ganja farming and hashish production cost lives and money, spurred production of opium poppies, and plunged a poor country further into poverty, and also resulted in numerous human rights violations.
By the time the country was invaded and occupied by the Soviet Union in 1979, the Afghan cannabis industry was a mere shadow of what it had been. Mediocre commercial Afghan hash, like the kind that Mahmoud smuggles, is still exported, but the glory days, when American pot pilgrims viewed Afghanistan as Mecca, are long gone.
For those who don’t know the historical context of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, it’s instructive to note that the US used to consider communism, China, and the Soviet Union (now called Russia) as its most dangerous enemies. Today, President Bush woos China – despite its abysmal human rights record – and proclaims former KGB leader Vladimir Putin (who was deemed a mortal enemy of the US when Bush’s father was head of the CIA) to be a "good man" and an ally in the war against Afghanistan.
In 1979, the US, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia (a country often accused by the US of sponsoring terrorism), trained and funded Islamic fundamentalist "freedom fighters," generally known as the mujahadin, instructing them to use merciless guerrilla tactics and terrorism to kill large numbers of Russian soldiers and civilians. Like many of the insurgents that the USA has employed or assisted, the mujahadin were known producers and smugglers of illegal drugs, using sales of hashish and heroin to augment other funding for their war against Russia.
This situation has analogies in Yugoslavia, where the US went to war two years ago to support the goals of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), even though the KLA is one of the world’s biggest heroin trafficking organizations (CC#19, Kosovo Drug War).
It’s also similar to a situation in Southern California in the 1980’s, as outlined in the book Dark Alliance, when the CIA, DEA and other government agencies helped right-wing agents smuggle tons of cocaine into America, so that the profits could be used to fund the Nicaraguan contra rebels (CC#07, Coo-coo cocaine corruption, CC#20, Exposing CIA corruption).
Hounded and humiliated by the mujhadin, the Russians fled Afghanistan in 1989, leaving their soldiers’ blood and thousands of live land mines behind. Mujahadin factions fought amongst themselves for control of the war-ravaged country; the ultra-fundamentalist Taliban won the power struggle and established a theocratic government in Afghanistan in 1996.
The Taliban relied on the drug trade for funding. In 1999, 79% of the world’s opium poppy cultivation took place in Afghanistan. The Taliban also encouraged domestic production of heroin; United Nations officials claim that 95% of the heroin that reaches Europe comes from Afghanistan.
Taliban leader Mohammad Omar recently tried to appease drug warriors by waging war against domestic poppy producers. Last May, the US gave the Taliban $43 million, congratulating them for supposedly eliminating 90% of the country’s opium poppy cultivation in the previous growing season. Intelligence sources say that 225,000 acres of poppies were cultivated in 1999, but only 19,000 acres were cultivated during the 2001 poppy season.
Three years of drought almost certainly contributed to the alleged decrease in cultivation, but whatever anti-poppy progress has been made is likely to be reversed: the war on Afghanistan has resulted in Afghan poppy farmers getting the go-ahead from the Taliban to again increase cultivated acreage.
US anti-drug officials allege that the Taliban uses heroin as a terrorist weapon. They claim that massive heroin stockpiles inside Afghanistan are being shipped to Europe at cut-rate prices, and that Osama Bin Laden had unsuccessfully tried to create a super-strong form of heroin, called "Tears of Allah," that would spread throughout the West like a biological weapon, causing instant addiction and death.
Yet if the US is really serious about its drug war, it’s puzzling to see that it is now using the Northern Alliance, one of the mujahadin factions that worked with the US and the Taliban to defeat the Soviet Union, to defeat the Taliban. US forces are working in concert with the Northern Alliance as it tries to take key cities. US officials refer to the Northern Alliance as allies. Yet, these "allies" are heavily involved in hashish and heroin production and marketing. Last year, the only parts of Afghanistan that saw an increase in poppy cultivation and heroin production were those controlled by the Northern Alliance.
The perils, contradictions, and ironies of the drug war are starkly outlined by US policy failures in Afghanistan. Almost two decades ago, the anti-drug US government hired drug producers and smugglers to do its dirty work against the Russians. The people that George W Bush now refers to as "the evil ones" were at that time called "freedom fighters" by president Ronald Reagan, and by Bush’s father, who was then vice president. While Reagan and Bush revved up the domestic and international drug war, they turned a blind eye to the drug trade and brutalities of their allied Afghani freedom fighters.
During the 1990’s, the US government overlooked the Taliban’s involvement in terrorism in order to enlist it as a paid ally in the drug war. The US also worked to decrease hashish trafficking carried out by the Northern Alliance. Now that the US has declared that the Taliban must be vanquished by the Northern Alliance, it has gone silent about the Northern Alliance’s involvement in drug running. The US has also intimately allied itself with Pakistan, another country that until recently was condemned by the US for harboring terrorism, nuclear weapons, and drug smugglers.
Officials also acknowledge that the US wants to overthrow the Taliban and reinstall King Zahir Shah, who is now 86 years old and living in Italy, to the Afghan throne that he lost in 1973. If the former King is reinstalled, will the US allow him to again implement his cannabis-friendly policies in Afghanistan?
Freedom for Afghanistan
The US government knows that the Northern Alliance uses the profits it makes from selling heroin and hashish to fund its war against the Taliban. This profit chain includes marketing of Northern Alliance hashish to Dutch coffee shops. At the end of the clandestine "pipeline" that brings Afghan hash to Holland are coffee shop owners who pay about $4000 per kilo for the Alliance’s product.
In the intersection of commerce, politics and cannabis created by the illegal system that provides marijuana products for the Dutch retail market, Afghan hash is perhaps the only cannabis commodity imprinted with a revolutionary slogan. In gold letters, stenciled on the hardened brown crust of each slate, are the words "Freedom for Afghanistan," or "Freedom of Afghanistan." These slogans are the calling cards of the Northern Alliance.
There’s a lot of worry about Afghan hash in Holland these days. Most coffee shop owners, even those who consider themselves hashish specialists, are scared to associate their name with quotes about such hash. Some Dutch cannabists assume that the Afghan hash trade provides funding for the Northern Alliance’s fight against the Taliban, others suspect that all factions in Afghanistan export hashish and heroin.
"Buying slates of Afghan hash from the Alliance is a very direct way to fund the Alliance’s fight against the Taliban," one shop owner asserted. "If we want to fight terrorism, the best thing we can do is buy Afghan hash."
Another coffee shop owner said that he bought hash marked with Alliance slogans, "even though it is a slower seller and costs more than I think it is worth."
"The only politics I ever thought about in this business is that the more marijuana we sell the more money we make and the more popular our products are," the owner said. "Now I am seeing that there might be bigger things than that. Like, if we buy our hash from somebody, is that person using the money to make bombs, or to ship heroin, or to support Afghan farmers? Should I always turn a blind eye to the politics and morals of the people I get my supplies from? A lot of them are sleazy. They’re real criminals. They probably bring in things other than hash, like guns and harder drugs. I don’t know quite what to do."
Some American "patriots" who posted opinions on Internet sites about the geopolitical ethics of Holland’s coffee shop industry after September 11 think they know what Dutch marijuana businesspeople should do: the American posters called for a boycott of many varieties of hashish, especially those from Morocco, Lebanon, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, alleging that buying hashish from those countries was tantamount to supporting terrorism.
The head of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, a born-again, right-wing Christian fundamentalist named Asa Hutchinson, recently said that buying illegal drugs supports terrorism and that the war on drugs is a war on terrorism. The newly-created US Office of Homeland Security echoes internal drug war efforts which have encouraged Americans to spy on and inform on each other. The Office advises Americans to report neighbors who are quiet, who do not fit in, who express progressive sentiments. Under special war powers and anti-terrorism laws rushed through Congress and the executive branch after September 11, the government can act on citizens’ tips by secretly searching homes, secretly monitoring emails and phone communications, using bugging devices without a search warrant, and detaining people without arresting them and without probable cause.
Some American marijuana users have convinced themselves that these new government powers will be used only against Muslim suicide bombers and their allies, but the government definition of terrorism has included not just the fanatic Bin Ladens of the world, but also environmentalists, anti-globalization activists, and civil rights advocates.
The American commentators who alleged that buying "Middle Eastern" hashish helped terrorism advised Europeans to buy local hashish, or to make their own. A few Dutch shops reportedly removed some varieties of hash from their menus in response to the postings.
|l to r: Indian Black, Nepalese Temple Ball, Bubblehash
Crumble and smoke
Dutch coffee shop owner and marijuana activist Nol Van Schaik provided the Afghan slates pictured in this article. Van Schaik, who owns three marijuana shops and a cannabis museum in Haarlem, Holland just outside Amsterdam, said that boycotting hashish to protest terrorism was a stupid idea.
"If the Northern Alliance are the people on the ground who are going to defeat the Taliban, people who want to defeat the Taliban should buy as much of their hash as they can," Van Schaik said, slicing open an Afghan slate covered in red cellophane. "It’s a patriotic duty to buy their hash. Boycotting hash doesn’t make sense. A lot of the hashish we get comes from Hindu or secularized countries. And even if hashish is produced by Muslims, that doesn’t mean that the proceeds support terrorism. Are all Muslims terrorists? People who believe that are racists."
Van Schaik says hashish should be viewed strictly as a psychoactive commodity subject to market pressures. He says that supply and demand will govern the production, price and availability of hash, and cites the example of Lebanon, which accepted US drug war money 15 years ago and used it to destroy its thriving Bekka Valley hashish industry.
Cannabis farmers went broke because the Lebanese government and its drug war allies failed to provide compensation to those who lost income due to the crackdown on cannabis cultivation and hash production. Last year, the farmers rejected the drug war and again planted crops of hashplants in the Lebanese desert. This year, Holland is seeing the first shipments of the legendary Lebanese product in more than a decade.
Van Schaik crumbles some of the Afghan hash into a Dutch joint, and lights it. The revolutionary hash has a distinct flavor and produces a formidable high, but it is nowhere near as potent or pure-tasting as gold-colored Moroccan primero that he had smoked with me the day before.
|l to r: Afghani chunk (from intro pic) sliced, Ice-o-lator hash (background: wet/unpressed)
As I networked the back alleys of the Dutch pot industry searching for information about Afghan hash, I found a Muslim who admitted to being involved in the smuggling of hashish into Holland. He told me about Mahmoud, bribing military, police, civilians and government officials in several countries, and about the political-economic implications of the hash trade.
"Afghanistan people like hashish," the man said. "They have special rooms and pipes to smoke it. It’s not all just to sell here. You can go to special markets and shops to buy it, especially near the border with Pakistan."
The man said that Afghan hash had lost its formerly sterling reputation because it was now a conglomeration of resin powders from different types of plants, screened through relatively large bore screens, held together by binders like honey, animal fat, or tree sap.
"It is still stronger and better than marijuana, gram for gram," the man said. "It has a little dust in it from the winds, but it is a flower of the desert. With this war, we might not be able to get any here for a long time."
The man seemed sad and cynical when I asked him about the effects of war on Afghanistan and Afghan hashish. The US had just announced plans to bomb poppy fields, and the man worried that cannabis plantations could also be hit.
"It’s a tribal country that people make fun of because they don’t understand it," he said. "The Taliban were good at killing communists, but they are bad at running the country. The Northern Alliance isn’t any better. Bin Laden’s family is friends with Bush’s family. They’ve all worked together in the past, and then they start hating each other. Who knows what is really going on? The big countries always like to use our country as a target practice. The holy men who smoke hashish say that all of them are wicked people. It doesn’t matter. If we survive the winter and the snows come, there will be more cannabis planted next year. There will be more Afghan hashish to smoke in Holland."