This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.
As a stoner with a passion for sustainable weed, I’ve spent a few years travelling through the region where cannabis originated. After India, Nepal and Pakistan, Afghanistan was next on my list, for its unique weed growing culture.
Afghanistan is mostly mountainous and completely landlocked. Thanks to its position along important trading routes between Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, multiple empires have tried to conquer it over the centuries – but the country’s uniquely desolate landscape and harsh climate have helped it resist foreign rule.
In 1979, the Soviet Union occupied the country and installed a communist government unpopular with locals; Soviet troops were opposed by the mujahideen, Islamist guerrilla forces supported by the US. Eventually, a collapsing Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, but this did not end Afghanistan’s civil war, which has been raging in different forms ever since. In 1996, the Taliban took control of Afghanistan and was later deposed by the US military invasion in 2001. But since 2017, the Taliban has been regaining territory and is now thought to be stronger than ever.
In short, decades of conflict have stalled economic development and largely cut Afghanistan off from the rest of the world. In the meantime, the cannabis industry has boomed worldwide, with growers investing in hybrid varieties that maximise the plant’s psychotropic effects, making a more profitable product. As a result, most of the cannabis planted worldwide comes from the same high-THC strains.
The author's roadmap of Afghanistan.
But Afghanistan’s decades of isolation protected its native cannabis strands from modern hybrids, making it a biodiversity hotspot for the plant. This is what tempted me to document these rare, natural cannabis strains before they disappear. In 2018, I set up an appointment with the Afghan Embassy in Paris (the closest for me as a Belgian citizen), where I was warned about how dangerous the country is, and told to stay in my hotel for the duration of my trip.
After a month hitchhiking on the roads of Uzbekistan, I finally crossed the Afghanistan–Uzbekistan Friendship Bridge, which connects the two countries across the Amu Darya river. It’s via this bridge that the Soviet troops left Afghanistan on the 15th of February, 1989 after a decade of war.
My final destination was Mazar-i-Sharif, the fourth-largest city in Afghanistan, 60 kilometres away in one of Afghanistan’s most fertile regions. The city produces cotton, grains and fruit, but is also famous for its cannabis fields.
Once in town, I noticed a few weed plants growing around people’s houses, probably planted for personal use. The further we drove from the centre, the more conspicuous the weed plants became among the neighbouring cotton fields – until, finally, they occupied entire plots of land.
A cannabis plant in the centre of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Although it’s been cultivated for centuries, cannabis has been illegal in Afghanistan since the 1970s. For my own safety, I knew it was crucial to get off on the right foot with the local farmers. Mazar-i-Sharif is a vibrant and friendly town during the day, but at night it’s dangerous enough that people don’t go outside. At first, the farmers clearly didn’t trust me, but once they realised I was only interested in taking pictures of their work they let me take a closer look.
I was struck by how many different types of plants could be found in the same field. Small and large, narrow and wide-leafed, green, blue, purple, their heads full of seeds and shining with resin. Some smelled like berries, others like cat piss. This biodiversity, clear to the naked eye, is preserved by the farmers’ traditional approach to growing. Instead of buying new seeds, they sow a portion of the previous year’s, gathered from pollinated plants.
The harvest season is between October and December. After that, the plants are dried and processed. Afghans don’t smoke cannabis heads; instead, they turn the plant into hashish. This traditional method filters the cannabis resin, making it more concentrated – a practice that likely originated somewhere between northern Iran and northern Afghanistan in the Middle Ages.
The active ingredients of cannabis, THC and CBD, are made by trichomes, resinous glands on the surface of the plant’s leaves. To make hashish, you start by separating the sandy resin from the leaves and then sifting it several times. The product is then pressed and warmed up, so it releases its oils. Afghan hashish usually has a dark surface colour but is lighter inside.
In this region, smoking hashish is an opportunity to socialise with friends and family. One of the oldest smoking techniques consists of dropping a pellet of hashish into glowing embers, before sucking up the vapours through a straw while keeping some water in their mouth. This technique, called naysha, is pretty effective – it’s like turning your mouth into a bong.
The Afghans also use chillums, which are wooden water pipes similar to shishas, but hand-held. Many cannabis farmers have a little chillum room in their homes, where they receive guests. In town, you can also find chillum bars where smokers get together and drink green tea around the pipe. I only had pretty positive experiences with local smokers, who seemed happy to have a tourist join them. It was usually a relaxed vibe, with conversation and laughter punctuating the constant passing of the pipe.
Of course, joints are also smoked in Afghanistan. Occasionally, I saw people put sticks of pure hashish in their empty cigarettes. Some also wet their joints before lighting them – making it easier for the hashish to release its oils and burn more slowly, so that the joint can be passed among ten people for about 20 minutes without going out.
A chillum bar in Mazar-i-Sharif.
Based on my own observations, it seems that cannabis culture hasn’t changed much in Afghanistan for several centuries. After decades of conflict, the country’s economy is in shambles and primarily relies on growing another, more dangerous plant – opium poppies. Profits from poppy fields are one of the Taliban’s main sources of income, despite US efforts to wipe out production in the country. For most of its consumer goods, Afghanistan relies on imports.
To this day, I’m struck by the contrast between the conservative everyday daily life in Afghanistan and the region’s rich cannabis culture, with its skilled craftsmen and generational know-how.
Lucas Strazzeri’s book, “Afghanistan: A Cannabis Fortress” can be ordered directly from his Instagram account, @lucaswiseup.
Scroll down to see more pictures from the book.
A cannabis strand from Afghanistan.
Valley leading to Mazar-i-Sharif.
A joint made by sticking a pellet of pure hashish down a cigarette.
A close up of another native strand.