Wild, free and maybe high in Kazakhstan

By bne IntelliNews June 15, 2015

Naubet Bisenov in Almaty -


Reports that marijuana was being grown in large quantities in public spaces in Astana caused a sensation in the international media recently. But Kazakh police have retorted that what the reports called “marijuana plants in flowerbeds” was actually hallucinogenic-free hemp that grows wild in many parts of the country.

International media reports drew attention to “marijuana” allegedly having been planted by gardeners from a municipal company responsible for planting, watering and maintaining the flowers and trees in Astana after a resident took a picture and local media carried reports suggesting that hemp had been deliberately planted in the city's old centre.

An official from Astana-Zelenstroy, the company in question, confirmed to bne IntelliNews that the thickets of plants growing in flowerbeds along a road in Astana were indeed hemp, not nettle as had been initially suggested by the company. “It is wild-grown hemp, which does not have narcotic properties in northern regions,” the official, who refused to give his name, said. “We have weeded out and destroyed them.”

The official explained that the hemp had not been planted deliberately, but brought there with soil after the reconstruction of the road. The Astana city police department also told bne IntelliNews that the plant was not marijuana and asserted that such plants that grew in the country's northern regions did not contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active chemical in cannabis that is one of the oldest hallucinogenic drugs known. Despite this, the police ordered Zelenstroy to destroy the plants, Sofia Kylyshbekova, a spokeswoman for the Astana city police department, told bne IntelliNews.

Legalise it

Unlike in Kazakhstan's northern regions, marijuana with a high content of THC grows naturally on an estimated area of 140,000 hectares (roughly the size of Greater London) in the Shu Valley in the southern Zhambyl Region on the border with Kyrgyzstan. This causes problems for local law-enforcement agencies, which have to spend huge resources on fighting drugs smuggling there. Police arrests of couriers smuggling hundreds of kilos of marijuana out of the valley are frequent enough to have pushed the authorities to find a lasting solution to the problem.

In 2002, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose views sometimes seem to be ahead of those of society in general (he once explained that Kazakh society was not ready for the abolition of the death penalty, which is why in 2003 he imposed an open-ended moratorium on carrying out capital punishment), suggested that the country's Security Council should study “in a balanced way and with account of the conditions of the [illegal] drugs market” on how and to what extent “the mechanism of legalising certain types of drugs will be”.

No decision has since been taken on the issue, nor has the Security Council published the findings of its “study”. At the same time, in 2014 the president's eldest daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva, a deputy speaker of parliament's lower chamber, who is often tipped as a potential successor to her father, floated an idea that Kazakhstan should capitalise on its plantations of wild-growing cannabis and allow pharmaceutical companies to set up shop in the Shu Valley instead of wasting public money on the prohibition of marijuana. “How much budget funds have been wasted on this fight? Is it efficient,” Nazarbayeva questioned. “Today, perhaps, it is high time we actually use wild-growing cannabis for good ends, medical ends and with the aim of developing the economy.”

However, Zhanibek Khassan, director of the Zertteu think-tank, believes that the legalisation of soft drugs will not solve the drugs problem in Kazakhstan but will exacerbate it. “Before even looking into the issue of legalisation, Kazakhstan needs to solve greater problems it has in the social sphere, education and healthcare,” he told bne IntelliNews.

In response to an argument that legal marijuana would boost the country's attractiveness to foreign tourists coming from neighbouring countries, Khassan warns that pot-puffing foreigners could also bring crime to Kazakhstan. “It won't be a factor triggering the development of tourism in the country,” he said. According to the State Statistics Committee, out of 6.84mn people who visited Kazakhstan in 2013, only 56,617 foreigners specified tourism as the purpose of visit.

With corruption rife in the country, Khassan reckons the authorities and law-enforcement agencies will not be able to properly supervise drug use in case of legalisation. “The situation will not get better with legalisation, but it may worsen,” he suggested. “Will we be able to collect enough taxes from sales of soft of drugs? I am not sure, but we may end up spending more on administering sales of drugs and law-enforcement than taxes from legalised drugs.”

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