Afghan Cannabis Cultural and Genetic legacy

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Few countries can claim to have influenced the Cannabis Industry as much as Afghanistan. Yet for the past forty years, since the Soviet intervention in 1979, followed by the Talibans rise to power, and the US military occupation, it remained too dangerous to visit for most Cannabis enthusiasts. With one of the most ancient Cannabis culture still observable in the world today, a visit into the Cannabis fields and Hashish houses of northern Afghanistan feels like going back to the origins of the modern Cannabis consumption.

The Roots of Modern Cannabis Culture

Plant selection and resin extraction are the two main areas of innovation of the Cannabis Industry, and it might all have started somewhere around Central Asia. Among the few possible origins of Cannabis, northern Afghanistan is definitely on the way of the first propagation of domesticated Cannabis. While its neighboring countries used to share the same love for the plant and its by-products, the war on drugs of the 20th century almost completely erased it and Afghanistan stands as one of the oldest countries to have selected Cannabis for its psychoactive properties. What botanists call ‘landraces’ or ‘pure strains’, to refer to ancient domesticated strains are still thriving in Afghanistan, and if they don’t really fit the classical taxonomy about Cannabis, differentiating Sativas and Indicas, they actually show an incredible diversity. With different plant shapes, leaves colors or aromas in a single field, this diversity is striking against the uniformity of Cannabis fields we can now observe in other ancestral places of Cannabis production. Seeds from the previous year are sown in Spring, perpetuating the millenial selection of Afghan Cannabis, and seem to grow without much care, until the harvest from October, up to late in December.

Cannabis resin extraction by sieving

Afghans have selected Cannabis plants producing huge amounts of sticky resin as they don’t smoke the manicured buds, but sieve all their harvest to extract Hashish. Turkish poems from the 15th century describing the lifestyle of Sufis from Khorasan (Afghanistan’s medieval name), are the earliest written traces of Cannabis dust or powder, locating the origins of Hashish between northern Iran and northern Afghanistan. This medieval Hashish tradition first spread throughout the Muslim world, to be introduced into Europe during the 19th century by Napoleon’s soldiers. In the 60s, hippies traveling along the Hash trail then brought the Afghan Cannabis seeds and sieving technique into Morrocco, to supply the booming European demand.

It is around that period that emerged the modern Cannabis culture, when ‘underground breeders’ started to collect ancestral domesticated Cannabis seeds from around the world, and grew them in their backyard, to begin a more intensive selection than what had been done for millenniums. Selecting techniques quickly evolved from the field to the greenhouse, to now take place in sophisticated laboratories where plants are crossed, back-crossed or self-pollinated to create the highly potent polyhybrids, feminized, or auto-flowering seeds of the 21st century. Because plant selection aims at stabilizing one particular genetic expression, we now realize that from few ancestral strains (including Afghan landraces), the Cannabis Industry created a huge number of modern Cannabis hybrids, certainly highly psycho-actives but showing, according to recent studies, very little genetic differences. With the global internet market, Cannabis farmers in most ancestral places of production logically started to sow those potent western Cannabis seeds.

Cannabis field, early December, Balkh

As Cannabis is easily pollinated, the same genes spread to ancestral Cannabis lineages around the world, with disastrous consequences on Cannabis diversity. It is now a challenge to find Cannabis fields that have not been affected by this worldwide standardization, or skunkization, contrary to Afghanistan which remained an unreachable stronghold since the first legal Cannabis seed bank opened in Amsterdam.

As selecting techniques evolved, so did the extraction and purification of Cannabis resin. Despite the recent technical evolutions to produce concentrates (BHO, Rosin, Dabs…) involving chemical solvents and sophisticated tools the internationally recognized expertise of afghan Hashish masters, combining ancestral Cannabis strains, and regional curing methods remains an unmatched recipe for a high-value terroir Cannabis product.

‘Naysha’ technique.

Hashish Culture in Present-day Afghanistan

If this early history of Cannabis and Hashish is still a matter of debates for the growing Cannabis community, evidence of the modern Cannabis culture’s foundations is yet to be documented throughout Afghanistan. A large part of the population still indulges in Cannabis in various ways: it is quite common to spot Afghans smoking joints in the cities, in empty cigarettes filled with Hashish and sometimes mixed with a bit of tobacco, but Chilum is the traditional way of smoking Hashish in Afghanistan. Groups of friends gather in ancient Chilum-Khanas (Chilum-houses) where they can puff on a Chilum in exchange for little donations. Cannabis farmers generally have a dedicated room to receive their male friends, where conversations and laughter are eased with green tea and huge amounts of Hashish. In the city of Balkh, the shrine of Baba Ku credited according to the legend, for being the first person to advocate brown Cannabis bowl as medicine, is still a popular landmark. Another technique called ‘Naysha’, more popular in rural areas, might predate the Chilum and the joint: Hashish is spread on a burning ember, and vapors are inhaled with a straw through water stored in the mouth. If in most Western languages we use the term ‘Hashish’, the Arabic word for ‘herb’, Afghans use the persian word ‘Charas’ (meaning ‘leather bag’), to name the resinous extract obtained by sieving dry Cannabis plants. This could sound surprising to some of the youngest (and some oldest) Cannabis enthusiasts, who may believe Charas is exclusively used to refer to the hand-rubbed Indian extract, yet another sign that Afghan Cannabis culture, has been isolated for too long.Afghan Cannabis tradition has not changed since medieval times in spite, or because, of regional and international conflicts strangling the Afghan population for too long, so any trip in the region requires serious and wise planning. The continuity in the history of Cannabis from landraces to hybrids, and from traditional Hashish to modern concentrates, is still observable in the world today, not only in Afghanistan. But with the rampant worldwide standardization of Cannabis, real ancestral strains become more and more difficult to find. Yet, at the dawn of the first Genetically Modified Cannabis, they constitute our only chance to create a real diversity of Cannabis strains, with better pest and disease resistance. It is about time that Cannabis enthusiasts rise and work towards the conservation of ancestral Cannabis lineages as well as traditional ways of processing the plant.

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