Drug Trafficking, Mental Health, and the Role of Cannabis in Afghanistan
For over 50 years, the people of Afghanistan have and continue to witness the nightmares stemming from unending domestic and international war, conflict, and economic instability. In recent history, Afghanistan played an integral role in the demise of the USSR, has been witness to perpetual war between religious fundamentalists and terrorist groups, and has faced 20+ years of US and NATO occupation and influence. Afghan natives bravely endure, despite existing in such conditions, in a nation which has subsequently been nicknamed: “The “Graveyard of Empires”.
The costs to social well-being due to chronic war are considerable yet grievously overlooked. Consistently ranked as one of the most corrupt nations , over 5 million Afghans have fled their war-torn homeland since 2001 ; the year the US government launched Operation Enduring Freedom. Those who remained witnessed over 102,000 of their fellow citizens become casualties of war in just 10 years , consequently enduring the lasting dangers of unexploded landmines . There exist other issues, hidden behind the media’s engrossment of war, of which remain relatively unknown to non-Afghans. These include the exploitation and oppression of laborers as well as the distressingly high rates of addiction. Implementing policies in which to promote positive change is extremely problematic, as circumstances are influenced by a range of chaotically complex factors.
This article examines particular, ongoing issues regarding the social and health aspects of Afghans, primarily highlighting trends in addiction and mental health levels as well as economic features. Potential solutions are available, which this article hopes to highlight. The relatively unexplored role of Afghan cannabis, for example, given the right means, could be a significant factor in the improvement of particular economic and social hardships. Though this notion may seem a tad unconventional, there exist potentials for which policy makers to recognize.
The first section gives a brief historical role of Afghan cannabis, with the following section giving a more current account from 2010 to the present. The final section give evidence of how the legitimization of Afghan cannabis may benefit their society and economy, with a summarization of further uses and potentials. Chiefly, this work was undertaken with the following aspirations: (1) raising awareness of adverse issues which remain rampant in Afghanistan, (2) outlining the history and current state of these issues, and (3) the presentation of possible solutions for which leaders and policy makers to explore and implement.
A Brief History of Afghanistan, Cannabis, and Drug Trafficking: 1870’s – 2010
Afghanistan’s illicit drug trade remains a troublesome issue, with poverty-stricken farmers undertaking the job of cultivating opium due to the high price of heroin in the international drug market. This escalated after the Taliban taking power in 1995, as they sanctimoniously re-established poppy farming so as to fund their war efforts. Even though the Soviets withdrew in 1988-89, infighting among Afghan powers made it difficult for growers and traders to return to crop cultivation. When the Taliban took power in 1995, they reestablished poppy farming, subsequently becoming a major source of their income, as opium cultivation held a much higher profit margin than that of cannabis. This clandestine trade continues to be a major element in both the political and financial roles regarding the Afghanistan conflict.
Historically, Afghanistan was, and continues to be, the world’s center for cannabis resin or hashish production, with Afghani hashish considered to have the highest quality globally. Cannabis was being cultivated in Afghanistan well before Imperial Britain arrived to the Indian sub-continent, which was expeditiously sped up thereafter. The hashish trade was lucrative for both the revenue offices and merchants, but growing criticism in Britain put this industry under fire. In 1871, an official investigation was set up over the concerns that hashish instigated belligerency among the sepoys employed by the British in the army. The investigation was to study the effects of cannabis on all levels of society, concluding that there was no proof that the use of hashish caused insanity or an increase in the carrying out of criminal activity. In 1877 the issue was raised again, and another commission was set up for the same purpose, drawing broadly the same conclusions. Later on, a 7 volume, 3500-page study was published in Shimla, India in 1894, which established that moderate use of cannabis produced no destructive results.
Imperial Britain heavily capitalized on the trade of Afghan cannabis, quickly leading to a lack of supply. In response to this supply shortage in Northern Indian and Himalayan states, Afghanistan and neighboring states began exporting charas; which is concentrated cannabis, hand-rolled for better transport. This was often shipped along the ancient trade route known as the Silk Road, with hundreds of tons of charas being shipped each year, worth large sums of money. These were exported to vast areas throughout Asia and Europe, and were generally purchased by the inter-nationally recognized currency of the rupee. In the winter of 1904-05, for example, 141 tons of hashish passed through this route, which was valued at over 12 million rupees; which today would be estimated at over 13 million USD.
60 years later, the Afghan government realized the export potential of cannabis and encouraged, or mandated, fertilization methods for use in modern farming. This led to widespread smuggling of hashish from Afghanistan to Europe and United States. At this time, there was a growing ethical and moral concern from US authorities regarding hashish manufacture in Afghanistan. Thus, in 1973, the US government paid Afghanistan $47 million to destroy all hashish and opium within the national border. Under foreign pressure to comply, the last King of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, ultimately outlawed cannabis and poppy cultivation altogether in Afghanistan. This policy, however, was fleeting. In the summer that same year, King Shah was deposed by his brother-in-law; a coup d'état which has resulted in a violent conflict persisting to the present day. Soon after this coup, cannabis cultivation slowly recovered. Until 1979, Afghanistan remained a major producer of hashish, with a decrease in cultivation due to the invasion by the USSR.
Illegal cannabis production continued, however, as a 2010 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) survey found. Afghanistan remained the largest producer of cannabis resin or hashish worldwide, with Morocco being second highest. This is largely due to the fertility of Afghan soil and beneficial growing conditions. In comparison, Afghanistan can yield roughly 145 kg of resin per hectare compared to 40 kg per hectare in Morocco.
Illicit drug trade remains a troublesome issue, with limited options available to poverty-stricken farmers undertaking opium cultivation. This escalated after the Taliban taking power in 1995, as they saw fit to profit from re-establishing the trading of illegal drugs. In a Committee on Government Reform U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources in 2001, it was reported that:
“…the Taliban has provided sanctuary to and received military assistance from terrorist groups in Afghanistan. Taliban taxes on opium harvests, heroin production, and drug shipments have helped finance its military operations against rival factions. These taxes also bestowed legitimacy on Afghan drug traffickers. Despite the Taliban’s ban on poppy cultivation last year, opiates smuggled out of Afghanistan continue to destabilize the region by spreading addiction, HIV/AIDS, and crime. This uninterrupted trafficking suggests that the Taliban’s poppy ban is not a sincere effort to stop the drug trade." 
In 2001, the same year the Taliban blew up ancient Buddhist statues as well as prohibiting Afghans musical instruments, use of the internet, chessboards, playing cards, and movies for being anti-Islamic , they purportedly declared a ban on opium as well. This policy was decidedly short-lived, yet the abruptness of this policy drove farmers further into debt and despair, as no other opportunities were provided to them. The dip in opium cultivation lasted merely one year, with increasing momentum thereafter, as is shown below :
The negative effects from Afghanistan’s opium trade are not restricted to importing countries, as natives have witnessed disastrous effects to their physical and mental health. Since 2001, addiction levels have sharply risen, doubling from the years of 2005-2009, with an estimated 1 in 12 abusing narcotics . Those wishing to escape from these habits face additional difficulties, as the price for opium and heroin is exceedingly low, the scarcity of addiction treatment facilities, and lastly the persisting cultural taboo of drug use. Moreover, due to ongoing conflict and social turmoil, millions of Afghani people suffer from PTSD-like disorder. It cannot be called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as the stress and strife did not occur in the past; the stress and trauma are ongoing. As a result, many suffer from psychological disorders which remain undiagnosed, leading many to self-medicate with hard drugs as a coping mechanism.
Recent Events: Afghanistan 2010 - Present
In 2009 and 2010, the UNODC and the Ministry of Counter Narcotics (MCN) undertook the first formal cannabis survey in Afghanistan. They found that Afghanistan was a major producer of cannabis worldwide, out-producing any other nation, despite cannabis cultivation’s illegal status in Afghanistan. Leaders were well aware of these operations, yet the tax-free cultivation continued. In 2010 alone, an estimated 1200 to 3700 tons of cannabis resin was produced in Afghanistan.
Preeminent justifications for the illegal cultivation of cannabis by farmers were reported to be “alleviation of poverty” as well as the “high sale price of hashish”. They have faced domestic disapproval, with the main arguments being the legal status of cannabis, and that it is forbidden by Islam. This remains a gray area, as Islam does not explicitly prohibit hashish as compared to alcohol consumption. This has long been a point of contention between Islamic scholars, as hashish has been consumed throughout the Arab world since Roman times.
Outdated policies and regulatory action have continued, yet with minimal success rates. A major source of opposition has been the US military and State and Defense Department, with an estimated cost of at least $778 billion spent along with utilization of numerous resources in anti-narcotics operations in Afghanistan since 2001 . It remains highly unlikely that Afghanistan will step down from the top spot in cannabis cultivation, however, as it is estimated that the area under cannabis cultivation in Afghanistan at 9000 hectares up to 29,000 hectares; the substantial range is due to various difficulties which make accurate figures problematic. However, opium cultivation remains connected to cannabis cultivation, with as many as 60% of the cannabis farmers also growing opium poppy.
American attitudes have shifted regarding cannabis, as legalization and decriminalization of cannabis with medical use being legalized in 35 states and 4 permanently inhabited US territories. Cannabis industry experts and long-term producers predict that more US states will likely follow suit, with eventual legalization in countries where international US policies once influenced the outlawing of cannabis. Moreover, in 2020, the UN commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) reclassified cannabis as not being in the same category of “most dangerous drugs” .
Medicinal potential of cannabis continues to be explored, with studies that would not have been possible until recently (because of socio-legal factors). One study published in Neurotherapeutics by Yasmin Hurd, et al. in 2015 showed that CBD, a compound found in medical marijuana can decrease opiate cravings for those addicted to heroin . Findings such as these could be probed further, as Afghanistan is home to 3 million addicts according to a comprehensive national survey in 2015. In other words, nearly 10% of the population is experiencing substance addiction.
Afghanistan, as before-mentioned, has a centuries old tradition of growing cannabis and creation of hashish. Intriguingly, scientists have speculated that modern cannabis may have actually originated Afghanistan. All the same, it seems natural that cannabis cultivation will become legalized in Afghanistan, as it has the ability to benefit particular sections of Afghani society, which will be examined here.
Legalization of medical cannabis would bring instant relief to thousands of small-scale farmers in Afghanistan who are or who wish to cultivate cannabis. Many farmers, 32.7 % of whom, reported in 2010 that they discontinued cannabis cultivation because of the government ban. Concomitantly, farmers who were illegally cultivating cannabis cited that the major reason behind it was to escape from poverty. If medical cannabis were to be legalized, it would help thousands of small-scale farmers support themselves, also creating other types of jobs such as those related to farming and cultivation, harvesting, sorting, curing, pharmaceutical occupations, and roles in the hemp industry.
Women could be able to work in cannabis post-production facilities, as, at present, 11.16% of Afghans are unemployed. Also, aside of medicinal properties, the cannabis plant can be of industrial use such, such as with usage of hemp in construction, textiles, food, paper, plastic, as a biofuel, and as a raw material for many other processes. Of course, the illegal status of cannabis denies possible utilization of its other uses.
According to a study carried out in the US, if cannabis is legalized throughout America it will lead to $128.8 billion in taxes and 1.6 million new jobs. No such research has been carried out for Afghanistan. However, Afghanistan would surely emerge as the leading source of legal, medical cannabis, as at present it is the largest producer of cannabis resin. Legalization of medical Cannabis in Afghanistan would undoubtedly provide an unforeseen impetus to farmers as well as creating thousands of jobs in the legal cannabis industry, including those in post-production and in the pharmaceutical industry, as well as providing millions in tax revenue for the Afghan government.
In the US, Afghan war veterans are commonly prescribed medical marijuana for PTSD and PTSD-like symptoms. Consumption of cannabis for medicinal use could alleviate particular symptoms for those Afghanis stricken with PTSD and PTSD-like disorders. Further, cannabis contains other compounds apart from its psychoactive component, THC, including CBD, CBN, CBG, and CBC. Cannabinoids have medicinal potential, and they are being investigated for their wide range of effects; these in anxiolytic effects, effects on improving appetite, and in overcoming nausea.
Lastly, revenue gained could be reinvested, funding Afghan social services such as drug addiction and education programs. However, the solutions proposed here would invariably face numerous challenges. Regarding the legalization of cannabis, there might be clerical opposition as well as threats from terrorism. Insurgents currently profit from the black-market status of cannabis and opium. If cannabis were to be legalized, it might threaten the illegal drug trade and their exploitation of it, potentially prompting terrorists to destabilize and/or disrupt the legal status and trade. Furthermore, cannabis and cannabis-smokers have been known to have low cultural status in Afghanistan. It may take time for cultivation of cannabis to become acceptable in the eyes of the general population.
Of course, there is a complex mix of factors which can improve the state of Afghanis. Many remain overlooked by leaders and policy makers while the nation remains in a near-constant war. This has resulted in an incessant strain on the population’s mental health, with generations existing in a now-normalized state of stress and anxiety. Afghanis have for decades been plagued by experiencing literally every potential risk factor for addiction, as one recent literature review highlights ;
“There are strong links between poverty, deprivation, widening inequalities and problem drug use but the picture is complex. It may involve fragile family bonds, psychological discomfort, low job opportunities and few community resources.”
Time and time again, the “War on Drugs” has proven ineffective in creating any positive change. Afghanis are in urgent need for national policies derived from empathy, not denunciation, based on evidence, and not of punishment.
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