KABUL, Afghanistan: The fields of Balkh province in northern Afghanistan were completely free of opium poppies this year, a success touted often by Afghan and international officials. But one look at Mohammad Alam's fields tell the story of another emerging drug problem.
Towering, 3-meter (10-foot) cannabis plants flourish in Alam's field, part of a wave of farmers turning to marijuana. The crop can be just as profitable as opium but draws none of the scrutiny from Afghan officials bent on eradicating poppies.
Cannabis cultivation rose 40 percent in Afghanistan this year, to 70,000 hectares (173,000 acres) from 50,000 hectares (123,550 acres) grown in 2006, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime estimated in its 2007 opium survey.
It is being grown in at least 18 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, according to the survey released last month.
The report singles out Balkh as a "leading example" of an opium-free province, saying that other provinces should follow "the model of this northern region where leadership, incentives and security have led farmers to turn their backs on opium."
However, a small section of the report addressing cannibis says the increase in its cultivation "gives cause for concern."
"Cannabis has also spread to the north of Afghanistan and is observed to have increased particularly in Balkh province," according to the survey.
One of those Balkh farmers, Alam, said he knows that growing marijuana is illegal but says he has to grow it to feed his children. He said the government cannot provide jobs or find markets for legal crops.
"The government cannot provide a good market for other crops like cotton, watermelon and vegetables, so I have to grow marijuana instead of poppy," said Alam.
Drug dealers from the southern poppy growing provinces of Kandahar and Helmand travel north to buy marijuana and take it to Pakistan, Alam said.
Gen. Khodaidad, Afghanistan's acting counter-narcotics minister, who like many in Afghanistan uses only one name, said the government doesn't yet have a good handle on marijuana.
"This is also a big problem for Afghanistan," he said. "More people will become addicted. It is very cheap. Hashish is more harmful (than poppies) to the people of Afghanistan."
The U.N. said cannabis yields around twice the quantity of drug per hectare as opium poppies and requires less investment to grow it. Given that, cannabis farmers could earn the same amount per hectare as opium farmers, the U.N. drug report said.
"As a consequence, farmers who do not cultivate opium poppy may turn to cannabis cultivation," the report said.
Afghanistan already grows some 93 percent of the world's opium.
Akbar Khan, a 35-year-old farmer from Balkh province, said that if legal crops could command higher prices, farmers would grow those.
"We know marijuana is an illegal crop, but we are very poor and we have to grow it to help our families survive," he said. "I don't like growing poppy or marijuana. I don't want people to become addicted to these things, but I have to feed my children and I have no other way."
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