Kazakhstan The putative birthplace of cannabis, Kazakhstan enjoys a vibrant culture of cultivation and use, as well as abundant wild growth of cannabis. The heartland of cannabis in Kazakhstan is the Chuy Valley; in season, locals descend on the plants at night to conduct clandestine harvests, as restrictive laws now prohibit its use.
Cannabis laws, arrests and sentences in Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan has retained the strict drug laws implemented during the Soviet era, although attitudes towards drug addicts have softened in the post-Soviet era and now focus on treatment and rehabilitation rather than penalisation. Trafficking is dealt with much more harshly, and is considered a threat to national security; in 2008, amendments to the Criminal Code introduced maximum life sentences for drug trafficking. Kazakhstan retains the death penalty, but uses it only in exceptional cases and does not apply it to drug trafficking charges; the death penalty has been suspended since 2003, but has not been formally abolished.
In 2011, Kazakhstani counternarcotics officials seized 27.38 tons of cannabis and 6.09 tons of hashish, and arrested over 1,950 individuals for drug-related crimes. Between June and October that year, 1,547 drug related crimes were documented, including 875 cases of sale or supply and 75 cases of cultivation. In 2012, cannabis seizures climbed slightly to 27.98 tons, while hashish seizures dropped dramatically to just 0.23 tons.
While continuing to crack down on illegal trafficking, Kazakhstani authorities are beginning to consider legitimising the domestic cannabis industry to some extent; recently, a Kazakhstani MP, Dariga Nazarbayeva (who is also the daughter of President Nursultan Nazarbayeva) called for vast swathes of the Chuy Valley to be leased to pharmaceutical companies for medical research and manufacture of drugs.
Cultivated & wild cannabis in Kazakhstan
The heartland of cannabis in Kazakhstan is the Chuy Valley that lies between Kazakhstan and its neighbour Kyrgyzstan; it is estimated that up to 400,000 hectares of (mostly wild) cannabis grows there, accounting for around one-third of the available fertile soil and over 10% of the total area of the valley—possibly the largest cannabis fields in the world.
To the locals, wild cannabis is known as dichka, and while it is relatively mild in potency (THC levels apparently reach around 4%) it is well-loved for its clear, pleasant high and lack of hangover-like after-effects. The Kazakhstani portion of the Chuy Valley lies in Jambyl region, southeast Kazakhstan; the area is famed for the quality of its cannabis and hashish, which is seen as far superior to that produced elsewhere in the country.
While there is abundant wild cannabis, there is some degree of human intervention and cultivation. In 1926, local authorities registered the presence of cultivated ‘Indian hemp’ in the valley for the first time; by the 1980s, high-strength varieties from India and Pakistan were thriving, and beginning to dominate. Now it is generally accepted that the wild-type found in Chuy Valley is a hybrid between the typical Kazakhstani landrace and the introduced genetics from India and Pakistan. Although the Chuy Valley may produce as much as 6,000 tons of cannabis per year, it is thought that on average only around 500 tons are harvested.
Due to the illegality of cannabis and various difficulties in working the rugged terrain, open cultivation in the valley is not common, and harvesting the wild crop is the preferred tactic for many locals (as well as numerous citizens of nearby countries such as Tajikistan). However, deliberate cultivation of cannabis is becoming increasingly attractive, as the number of unemployed continues to rise in the region. Outside the Chu Valley, it is estimated that around 30,000 hectares of cannabis are cultivated in Taldy-Korgan, as well as smaller quantities in the Almaty, Kyzl-Orda and South Kazakhstan regions.
Seasonal harvesting of cannabis in Kazakhstan
In May, the harvest season begins. Individuals and groups come from a wide area, from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan as well as Kazakhstan, and use sickles and scythes to cut the plants at the stalk. Police presence is high in the Chuy Valley at this time, as they prepare for Operation Kendir (an annual drive to stamp down on cultivation and trafficking), which begins in June and lasts until October; as a result, the seasonal cannabis pickers utilise various strategies to avoid detection.
The plants will often be dried where they are felled, wrapped in plastic and buried in the sand, to be collected once police presence has fallen again in November. The harvesters, who typically remain on-site for several days or even weeks at a time, will often construct makeshift shelters by digging holes in the ground and concealing them with foliage.
Harvesters may be part of criminal organisations involved in commercial hashish-making and international trafficking, or may simply be cannabis enthusiasts seeking to secure a worthwhile supply without paying the much higher prices commanded outside the valley. Many of the people involved in cannabis harvesting are in extreme poverty—they may arrive independently, seeking to improve their fortunes, or they may be linked with criminal organisations, which require abundant low-cost labour each harvest season. The Chuy Valley is not apparently controlled by any single organisation or mafia, and anyone is free to harvest; beyond problems with law enforcement, it does not appear that competition for its resources have led to violence among the various groups that harvest there.
Hashish production in Kazakhstan
Chuy Valley cannabis may be dried and smoked as is, or may be processed into hashish known as ruchnik (which translates to ‘made by hand’) or plastilin (‘plasticine’), made by rubbing the leaves between the hands to collect the resin. The resin is scraped off the fingers, pressed and moulded to form sticky, dense hashish, and packed into matchboxes to be sold. The hashish is renowned for its potency, and has occasionally been known to make it as far as Europe (where it may be mislabelled as Pakistani-made), although the majority is destined for sale in Russia and the Central Asian region.
It is widely repeated that at harvest time, an annual ritual takes place in which naked, ritually-washed men ride (also freshly-washed) horses through the cannabis fields, covering themselves in sticky resin which is later scraped off and formed into hashish. It may be that this ritual does occur in areas of particularly abundant growth, but visitors to the Chuy Valley have noted that much of the cannabis growth occurs in small patches rather than dense fields, and would yield a poor harvest through this method (although the author also later points out that the crop that year was unusually sparse, perhaps as a result of heavy rains earlier in the season).
It is estimated that the Chuy Valley produces up to 6,000 tons of cannabis and around 40 tons of hashish per annum; the bulk of the harvest is destined for sale either locally or in Russia. In Kazakhstan and the surrounding area, the hashish is typically sold for around €750 per kilogram, although its value may triple or even quadruple if it makes it as far as Europe. It is thought that approximately 97% of all cannabis sold in Central Asia originates in Kazakhstan.
Cannabis eradication efforts in Kazakhstan
During the Soviet era, authorities began eradication efforts to rid the Chuy Valley of its cannabis, but their efforts were to prove unsuccessful. Burning the fields was ineffective, as new vegetative growth would quickly appear from the plants’ long root systems (as well as this, burning was unpopular as it threatened neighbouring crops and pastureland). Use of herbicides was considered too potentially damaging to the environment and attempting to pull the plants out by the roots brought about its own set of problems.
The roots of cannabis can stretch down two metres or more, and are extremely important soil stabilisers in many of the areas they thrive in (particularly sandy, semi-arid soils, like those found in much of Central Asia). Due to this, attempts to eradicate the crop by pulling it out by the roots led to massive soil erosion, bringing sand into villages and even burying roads under it. Another factor complicating eradication is the fact that the stands are small and randomly scattered about the landscape, making location and coordination extremely difficult.
Kazakhstani authorities have maintained annual eradications in the post-Soviet era, although these are relatively small-scale, and primarily focused on opium poppies. Operation Kendir 2011 accounted for the destruction of approximately thirty hectares of wild cannabis plantations and over four tons of cannabis, as well as leading to the arrest of three hundred individuals.
The precious Kazakhstani gene pool
As well as threatening the rural ecosystem and economy, eradicating Kazakhstani cannabis crops would be a huge blow to the ongoing effort to preserve landrace cannabis genetics. As the homeland of cannabis, the large and diverse Central Asian gene pool could be of huge importance in research as it may provide clues as to the plant’s early evolution and development. Furthermore, the sturdy, two metre tall Kazakhstani type is an ideal backbone for breeding high quality indoor genetics, and throughout the world, we are losing these landraces at an alarming rate—to habitat fragmentation, eradication, and introduction of foreign genetics.
Fortunately, it appears that cannabis is in no danger of dying out in Kazakhstan, but already, foreign genetics have begun to influence the gene pool. As Kazakhstan occupies an important position on the Silk Road that interlinks many cannabis-producing countries of antiquity, there may have been repeated influence on Kazakhstani genetics from other sources in the wider region such as China, India or Pakistan, prior to the first recorded instance in 1926.
It is generally accepted that modern Chuy Valley cannabis is a hybrid with Indian and Pakistani heritage; while this input has apparently increased cannabinoid content, the original gene pool has been compromised. It appears that non-hybrid types are still dominant elsewhere in Kazakhstan; it would be highly advantageous to collate as much of this genetic material as possible and preserve the genetics in case they become threatened in their natural habitats. An astonishing diversity of cannabis types are thought to exist in the region, including high-cannabinoid, fibre hemp, and autoflowering varieties.
History of cannabis in Kazakhstan
It is believed that cannabis originated in present-day Kazakhstan and surrounding parts of central Asia, and that humans began to utilise it from as early as 10,000 BCE. Cannabis was probably originally utilised for fibre and seed, with its medicinal and psychoactive properties being discovered later.
By around 500 BCE, the nomadic Scythian tribes that inhabited the region were well-known for their cannabis use. A Scythian tomb site (usually termed a ‘barrow’) dated to around 300 BCE was found in the Mongolia’s Western Altai region (just north of present-day Kazakhstan) and excavated in 1929; it was found to contain the embalmed body of a man along with a cauldron full of burnt hemp seeds. Another barrow dated to around 400-500 BCE was excavated in 1947-1949 and found to contain various cauldrons and flasks containing burnt and unburnt cannabis seeds. From the famous descriptions of Scythian life left to us by Herodotus, there appears to be no doubt that the people of the time were aware of cannabis’ intoxicating effects.
Medieval Kazakhs, descendants of Scythians and various other tribes frequenting the region in ancient times, apparently continued to use hemp fibre for a multitude of purposes including weaving and rope-making. There is little evidence of a trade in cannabis and hashish as an intoxicant throughout much of this period, but as it lies along the route of the ancient Silk Road (that ran from East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula all the way to China) Kazakhstan undoubtedly has a long history of trading in cannabis.
The present-day cannabis trade in Kazakhstan
The bulk of domestically-produced cannabis and hashish is sold in Kazakhstan or in neighbouring countries, particularly Russia and Kyrgyzstan. As well as being a producer country for cannabis and hashish, Kazakhstani authorities are concerned that heroin is being trafficked through the country in increasing quantities from Afghanistan and Pakistan en route to Russia and Europe.
Kazakhstan’s drastically-underfunded police counternarcotics units have made various efforts to control the cannabis industry in the Chuy Valley, but now that central Soviet funding no longer boosts their budget, the industry is far too large—and is depended on by far too many—for their efforts to have any real effect. It is reported that anti-drug units are so underfunded that their members buy their own nightsticks on the black market, and patrol cars are often left stranded due to insufficient fuel. The entire Chuy Valley is apparently patrolled by less than thirty officers, with a handful of cars and a single helicopter.
Authorities in Kazakhstan liaise with those of neighbouring countries, as well as the Afghani, Pakistani and U.S. counternarcotics divisions, in international efforts to exchange intelligence on drug trafficking in Central Asia. However, their efforts are hampered by the severe lack of funding, poor coordination, and lack of equipment and resources.
Culture of cannabis use in Kazakhstan
Chuy Valley is famous throughout Kazakhstan and Central Asia for its unusual trademark crop, and its products are highly prized. Although locally-produced cannabis is available in many others areas of the country, it will often be cheaper and lower in quality than the famed Chuy Valley weed—which can be rare outside its immediate area of origin, due to high demand and limited availability.
Consumption of cannabis is common in much of Kazakhstan; although no exact figures apparently exist, its use is ubiquitous and socially acceptable, and in areas close to the Chuy Valley most people regularly or socially consume it. In cities, use is remarkably widespread; throughout the country, cannabis is regarded positively by many who see it as providing a much-needed boost to the country’s struggling economy (especially during the early post-Soviet years), and are proud of Kazakhstani cannabis’ reputation in the region. There are even a handful of Kazakhstani rap groups who regularly make Chuy Valley cannabis the focus of their lyrics.
Many Kazakhstanis were understandably outraged at the portrayal of their country in Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, and as a cinematic response, Almaty-based film director Jantik released a movie in 2009 called Shu-Chu, a story of four young friends who travel to the Chuy Valley from Almaty and become involved in the cannabis industry. Although the film was not particularly well-received, it is an interesting depiction of the cannabis industry and the culture surrounding it.
Plans to grow hemp in Kazakhstan
Plans were recently announced to construct a hemp-processing plant in the Jambul region just north of the Chuy Valley, which would process the wild cannabis of the valley into various commodities including medicine and fibre. Initially, the enterprise would focus on pharmaceutical production of THC; in later stages, fibre, oil and other products would be produced.
The company behind the plans, a member of the Almaty Special Partnership known as XELORIA, has stated that there are several administrative stages to be completed before the project can be implemented. These stages involve acquisition of licenses and equipment, as well as development of a specific pharmaceutical process to extract the THC and other cannabinoids according to the profile of the Kazakhstani type.
The Entrepreneurship and Industry Management Unit of Jambul Region has stated that construction and operation of the plant would create up to 150 permanent jobs, with seasonal rise of temporary employment as the crop would be hand-picked and harvesters would be needed. However, local residents are not all in favour of the plan, and some view it as a way to direct the potential profits from the wild crop straight into the hands of corporations and away from the wider rural population.
Purchasing and using cannabis in Kazakhstan
It is reported that up until the 1970s, cannabis was openly sold in Kazakhstan’s bazaars and markets, and a ‘cup’ of buds was comparable in price to sunflower seeds. Since then, prices have risen and sale is not as open and ubiquitous. If bought at source in the Chui valley, a similar quantity will now cost approximately 1,000 tenge (around €4), and may cost two or three times that amount if purchased elsewhere.
In major urban areas such as Almaty, cannabis is generally easy to find. In tourist areas, especially those with numerous bars and nightclubs, sourcing a supply should be as easy as starting a conversation with a bartender or local. There are also ‘hitchhiking taxis’—private cars that offer rides to tourists and locals—whose drivers may sell cannabis; if so, they will often offer it to their customers. It is advisable to remain cautious at all times when attempting to make purchases in urban areas, as police may exact heavy fines or bribes if given the opportunity.
We are currently working to compile up-to-date information on cannabis use and legislation in every country throughout the world. To this end, we welcome your information, advice, opinions and corrections.