AMU Homeland Security Intelligence Middle East Opinion

Afghanistan Now the World’s Leading Supplier of Cannabis

A soldier of the International Security Assistance Force walks past a cannabis field that Taliban militants used for cover in the Kandahar province.(Credit: Robert Bronwen, AFP Getty Images)

By Jenni Hesterman

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) recently released its 2008 Opium Winter Rapid Assessment Survey, which shows that Afghanistan not only provides 90% of the world’s supply of opium, but is now also the top supplier of cannabis, the source of marijuana and hashish. Approximately 70,000 hectares (173 acres) of the crop were cultivated in 2007, as compared to 50,000 hectares in 2006. Estimates show yet another increase in production in 2008. The UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa summed up the challenge by stating: “Thus, today, Afghanistan has become the world’s biggest supplier of two drugs: the most deadly one (heroin), and the one most commonly used (cannabis).

With unwanted Taliban (and world) attention on poppy production, farmers are increasing their cannabis plantings. According to the UN, nearly three quarters of the farmers in the southern Kandahar province will plant cannabis this spring. Despite the fact that cannabis crop is less lucrative than poppies, cannabis farmers make $30 per day, which is five times as much as harvesting wheat. Cannabis is easier and less expensive to grow, and there is increasing demand by users in neighboring countries. Although both drugs are banned by Islam, cannabis appears to be more acceptable than opium. It is converted into “cigarette-tees”, which are widely available for purchase in local markets throughout the region.

The escalating cannabis crop in Afghanistan has several implications. The overall U.S. commitment to counternarcotics in Afghanistan is about $500 million a year, and although a portion of the funds go toward hindering narco-trafficking, the bulk is spent on poppy eradication efforts. In fact, the 2007 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, released by the State Department, does discuss hashish seizures by officials, yet doesn’t mention cannabis crop production in Afghanistan as a focus area. Addressing this issue on the ground will likely require additional money and manpower, or the diversion of resources from the poppy suppression efforts.

At the tactical level, Taliban fighters have been known to hide in the marijuana fields. Plants can grow up to 10 feet and provide a thick, dense cover not easily penetrated by thermal devices. Cannabis foliage is hearty and moist; as discovered in other eradication efforts, it does not burn easily. Once ignited, the resulting smoke has an ill effect on humans and animals in the vicinity, thus impacting those beyond the area of operations.

Finally, the increased cannabis production could affect many innocent civilians. Established drug trading routes in the region are expected to burgeon, and villages along the routes have been warned by officials to expect increasing activity by traffickers, law enforcement, and possibly the Taliban.

About the Author

Jenni Hesterman is a retired Air Force colonel and counterterrorism specialist. She is a senior analyst for The MASY Group, a Global Intelligence and Risk Management firm that supports both the U.S. Government and leading corporations. She is also an adjunct professor at American Military University, teaching courses in homeland security and intelligence studies.

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