Kyrgyzstan The central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan has a long history of cannabis use. Cannabis is indigenous to the region, and Scythian tribes utilised it for fibre, food and drug purposes perhaps earlier than any other culture. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, political upheaval caused the modern cannabis trade to thrive.
Evolution and early history of cannabis in Kyrgyzstan
The cannabis plant is thought to have originated in the vast steppes of central Asia, before spreading west to Europe and south and east throughout Asia, assisted both by human activity and by ongoing climate change. It is thought that the advancing ice cover of the last glacial period encouraged its southward spread, and that humans repopulating higher latitudes as the ice retreated assisted its subsequent northward and westward spread.
Cannabis use in central Asia is the earliest documented of all humanity. The ancient Scythian tribes that inhabited the region were documented to use it for both recreation and ritual; the Greek historian Herodotus described them ‘howling’ with pleasure after inhaling the fumes from burning cannabis seeds (‘seeds’ probably refers to the entire flowering head containing the seeds). Herodotus as a historical source is not entirely trustworthy, and as such many have disputed the veracity of these claims, but the discovery of several Scythian tombs containing preserved cannabis has proved the truth of his statements on this topic at least.
Wild cannabis in Kyrgyzstan
Cannabis grows abundantly in the wild in Kyrgyzstan, and laws against cultivation are relatively strict; thus, the vast majority of the harvest each year is taken from wild plants. The epicentre of wild cannabis in Kyrgyzstan is the area surrounding Lake Issyk-Kul, a popular tourist destination situated 225km southeast of the capital Bishkek and 100km south of Kazakhstan’s former capital Almaty; cannabis also thrives in the Chui Valley, which straddles the border between northern Kyrgyzstan and southern Kazakhstan.
It is estimated that wild cannabis covers up to 6,000 hectares in the Chui Valley and 7,000 hectares in the Issyk-Kul region. As well as the Chui and Issyk-Kul, cannabis also grows in Talas and Jalal-Abad provinces; rarely, cases of illicit cannabis cultivation have been reported in other remote regions, usually in locations inaccessible to law enforcement. In total, approximately 40,000 hectares of wild cannabis is believed to grow in Kyrgyzstan.
The wild cannabis that grows in Kyrgyzstan is primarily C. ruderalis, although (as in Kazakhstan) genetics from India and Pakistan have been introduced over the centuries, leading to significant genetic and morphological diversity between populations. Typically, wild plants are reported to reach 1-2.5 metres in height and produce up to 4% THC in the female flowers, and often exhibit visible and abundant resin production.
Seasonal harvesting of wild cannabis in Kyrgyzstan
Harvesting of the wild crop typically begins in early August, when resin production has peaked. It is reported that once the buds have been stripped from the branches, the plant continues to produce flowers and can be harvested a second time in late August or early September. This may well be a feature of its ruderalis ancestry, as many growers of modern autoflowering strains have found the same occurs with their own plants.
The harvest is of great significance to the local rural economy, particularly in times of poorer-than-average tourism (which often occur due to political upheaval in the region). In recent years, would-be harvesters have become increasingly open about their activities, and it is reportedly not uncommon to see whole families out in the fields, from children to the elderly. Women are also increasingly favoured for the task of harvesting, as they are generally less likely to be suspected of wrongdoing by the authorities.
Wild cannabis is often found sprouting in villagers’ gardens, in which case they must decide between uprooting the valuable crop to avoid police attention, or allowing it to grow unhindered; if the latter, the resulting harvest is usually sold on to local dealers.
Hashish production in Kyrgyzstan
The bulk of the cannabis harvested is simply dried and sold; however, there is also a lively culture of hashish-making that has endured for centuries, if not thousands of years.
Traditionally, hashish production in central Asia may have involved a certain unique ritual: naked horsemen (rider and horse both freshly washed) would ride repeatedly through the fields until both were covered with a sticky layer of hashish, which was then scraped off and pressed into blocks.
Now, however, it seems that the most common technique is to simply rub the plants between the palms of the hands to collect the sticky resin before scraping it off with a knife and packaging it into matchboxes for sale. It typically takes around thirty minutes to produce a palm’s worth of resin, which is known as a ‘chocolate’; each matchbox contains three or four ‘chocolates’ (typically 15-25g) and takes a total of two hours for one person to produce.
Now that hashish production is illegal in Kyrgyzstan, observers will note the location of likely-looking plants during the day, and at night will return to hand-rub the plants where they grow—sometimes remaining at the arduous task throughout the entire night.
Illicit cannabis trafficking in modern Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan has a small illicit trade in opium, cannabis and ephedra, which it produces, as well as in amphetamines. Domestic production of opium is small-scale, and cannabis and ephedra cultivation is far more prevalent and widely-distributed. It is estimated that up to 80% of families in the Issyk-Kul and Chui regions are involved in illicit harvesting of cannabis, of which around 40% is consumed locally and the rest trafficked on to neighbouring countries, including Russia.
Typically, small-scale local dealers purchase cannabis and hashish directly from the villagers that harvested it. The contraband is then sold on to larger regional and international trafficking organisations, which then oversee its journey out of Kyrgyzstan. The southern borders are prone to illicit trafficking of hashish and opium from Afghanistan and Pakistan, which travels through Tajikistan or even the lawless western reaches of China’s Xinjiang province to reach Kyrgyzstan, before leaving the country once more via its northern and western borders with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Tensions between police and cannabis harvesters
Local harvesters of Kyrgyzstan’s wild cannabis are often armed with sticks, knives and (less commonly) guns. Occasionally, tensions have been known to rise between the harvesters and the police sent to stamp down on the trade, which have spilled over into violence on several occasions. Firearms are more likely to be shot into the air as a deterrent than used as a weapon, but knife and stick skirmishes can reach intense levels. In 2005, a local counternarcotics official stated that two of his agents had been stabbed during an effort to arrest cannabis harvesters in Issyk-Kul the previous autumn.
Although police operations in Kyrgyzstan’s cannabis regions are regular, there is very little hope of any serious damage being done to the industry, both due to the tenacity of the plant itself and that of the locals involved in the trade, who in many cases depend on it utterly in order to generate the income needed to support their families. Counternarcotics divisions are hugely underfunded, and officials recognise the significance of the industry to Kyrgyzstan’s rural poor—and according to various reports, are often not averse to taking bribes in return for allowing the trade to continue unhindered.
According to anecdotal reports, an unofficial ‘fine’ of 1,000 Kyrgyz soms (around €14.50) will secure one’s release if arrested—if offered immediately. If the bribe is not offered, police are then likely to demand tribute of a cow, a horse, or the equivalent of $1,000 (€745).
Eradication of cannabis in Kyrgyzstan
Just as in neighbouring Kazakhstan, the Soviet authorities made ongoing efforts to eradicate cannabis in the Chui Valley—burning the fields, applying pesticides, and uprooting it entirely—but their efforts were unsuccessful, and the plants simply returned and grew even more vigorously.
Following the collapse of the Soviet regime and the resulting economic and political upheaval in the region, unemployment soared and many rural people turned to cannabis as a means of generating much-needed income. In response to the rapid growth of the cannabis trade, Kyrgyz authorities renewed efforts to stamp out the industry. In 1994, it was estimated that 60,000 hectares of cannabis grew in Kyrgyzstan; that year, Kyrgyz authorities reported eradication of 15,000 hectares.
Although their efforts show little sign of destroying the industry, Kyrgyz authorities continue to pursue ongoing eradication efforts. In 2008, officials in Issyk-Kul announced the commencement of ‘Operation Poppy-Seed 2008’, a move to destroy opium and cannabis in the region; in 2009, anti-drug police in Issyk-Kul destroyed 152kg of cannabis plants in one operation. In 2013, Kyrgyz authorities stated that 154 metric tons of cannabis had been eradicated in the eight months up to and including August in Issyk-Kul alone.
Kyrgyzstan now a narco-state due to corruption and poverty
Kyrgyzstan is considered a minor producer country; of far greater concern to Kyrgyz authorities is the through-traffic in heroin, related opiates, and hashish originating in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Kyrgyzstan is a resource-poor nation that has suffered various political and economic upheavals since the collapse of the Soviet Union; the civil war in neighbouring Tajikistan (1992-1997) caused widespread regional turbulence, in 2005 Kyrgyzstan’s own Tulip Revolution caused a noticeable drop-off in tourism, and in 2010 the Second Kyrgyzstan Revolution led to as many as 2,000 deaths, the displacement of up to 400,000 individuals, and widespread economic difficulty.
As a result, trafficking of narcotics has become so endemic that there is little economic activity outside of it, and widespread police and political corruption sustains and supports the trade. It is thought that approximately 20% of all Afghani-produced heroin is transported through Kyrgyzstan, which is now being dubbed a narco-state by some due to its dependence on the trade.
Cannabis laws, arrests and sentences in Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan has relatively light sentences for narcotics offenses. Possession or cultivation of small quantities with no intent to supply typically results in community service or a fine, but may be punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment. Trafficking or production of narcotics including cannabis and hashish is punishable by between four and eight years’ imprisonment.
Much of the violence that has beset the region in recent years has been a result of clashes between the various ethnic groups that occupy it—Tajik, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Kazakh, among many others; as is so often the case, trafficking groups also tend to organise themselves according to ethnicity. Thus, many of the arrests made in Kyrgyzstan are of foreign nationals—particularly Tajiks, as such a high proportion of the drugs transiting Kyrgyzstan arrive from Tajikistan.
In February 2014 in Osh, a city in southern Kyrgyzstan that has been the scene of significant ethic clashes in recent years, a Tajik citizen was detained while driving a car with over 20kg of Afghan hashish concealed within it, while just days earlier, another Tajik citizen was arrested for possession of 690g of hashish. In 2009, the largest-ever bust in Kyrgyzstan led to the seizure of 172kg of hashish.
Purchasing and using cannabis in Kyrgyzstan
In Issyk-Kul or Chui, cannabis may easily be procured for next-to-nothing—or even free, if one knows where to look and who to ask. A matchbox full of hashish typically costs 300-350 soms (€4-5) at the point of origin, but may cost €20-25 elsewhere. If it makes it as far as Russia, the same matchbox may cost €200-250.
Cannabis and hashish are easy to find in almost every part of Kyrgyzstan, although care should always be taken to avoid attracting unwelcome attention from law enforcement. The price, quality and origin of the product available will vary according to location—in the south, Afghan hashish is very common, whereas in the northern regions, domestically-produced cannabis and hashish dominates.
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