In a report released this week, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) announced that Afghanistan is now the world's largest cannabis producer, surpassing Morocco. Afghanistan is already well entrenched as the world's largest opium poppy producer as well, supplying more than 90% of the illicit global market for opium and heroin.
"This report shows that Afghanistan's drug problem is even more complex than just the opium trade," said Antonio Maria Costa, head of UNODC in the report. "Reducing Afghanistan's cannabis supply should be dealt with more seriously, as part of the national drug control strategy."
Cannabis production is occurring in exactly half of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, the report found. It noted that production was shifting from the north -- the traditional locus of cannabis planting in the country -- to the south and east, the areas where the Taliban insurgency is strongest and the government presence weakest.
As with opium, some of the profits from the hash trade are ending up in the pockets of the Taliban. The insurgents typically siphon off millions of dollars by imposing taxes on farmers and smugglers to ensure safe passage of their goods.
"Like opium, cannabis cultivation, production and trafficking are taxed by those who control the territory, providing an additional source of revenue for insurgents," the report said.
The report estimates annual farm gate income from cannabis at between $39 million and $94 million a year, a fraction of the size of the opium trade, but still not an insignificant sum. Some 40,000 farm families generate income from cannabis growing, including families that are also growing opium. The UNODC said that farmers can earn a net income of $3,300 per year growing cannabis, compared to $2,000 growing opium.
For the UNODC, rising cannabis production should be responded to in the same way the West has responded to Afghan opium production. "As with opium, the bottom line is to improve security and development in drug-producing regions in order to wean farmers off illicit crops and into sustainable, licit livelihoods, and to deny insurgents another source of illicit income," Costa said.
But Afghanistan is arguably the home of cannabis, with strains like "Afghani" still highly valued by connoisseurs. It is difficult to imagine that there will ever be a time when there is no Afghani being grown in Afghanistan.