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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Many farmers in Afghanistan have been frustrated by government attacks on their opium poppy crops. So they're turning to a lucrative alternative that is just as illegal. That alternative is cannabis, the source of marijuana and hashish.

In southern Kandahar province, farmers in nearly three-quarters of the villages surveyed by the U.N. said they would plant cannabis this spring. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has the story.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Jan Mohammad's eyes water from the cloud of cannabis dust that rises from ground-up leaves he pours onto a tarp-covered bowl. But he says at $30 a day, five times as much as he earns from harvesting wheat, it's worth the discomfort.

(Soundbite of pounding)

NELSON: So for nine hours a day, the tenant farmer taps his tarp like a tambourine, filtering the cannabis through it and into the bowl. Later, he kneads the residue into clumps of hashish.

His landlord, Ateegh - the nephew of a top Kandahari government official -sells those clumps to Pakistani smugglers who cross the border a 90-minute drive away.

ATEEGH: (Speaking in foreign language)

NELSON: Ateegh says this year, he plans to double his cannabis crop while cutting back on opium poppies.

He says that's because it's cheaper to grow cannabis, plus demand for the drug in nearby Iran and neighboring Pakistan is increasing. Besides, his brother-in-law Mukthar says, Afghan eradication teams didn't touch Ateegh's cannabis last year. They did, however, destroy more than half of his poppy fields.

MUKTHAR: (Speaking in foreign language) The foreigners don't complain about cannabis like they do about poppies. So the government doesn't do anything about it.

NELSON: Such thinking has lead to a boom in cannabis cultivation here, so much so that in a report earlier this month, the United Nations declared Afghanistan not only the top opium supplier in the world, but one of the biggest cannabis suppliers as well.

Most of the cannabis that authorities are aware of is being grown in the north and east, where poppy cultivation has largely stopped. The exception is Kandahar, where both poppy and cannabis growth are expected to increase this year. Christina Oguz heads the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan.

Ms. CHRISTINA OGUZ (Representative, U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime): It may even be that this country is turning into the number one in terms of cannabis as well, which is not an honorable position to be in.

NELSON: Oguz says Afghan police seized three times as much cannabis last year than the year before. But, she adds, with world attention so focused on opium, little is really known about cannabis cultivation in Afghanistan.

Both drugs are banned under Islam, but unlike opium, hashish is more or less socially acceptable here and widely used by Afghan men. Cigarette-tees - as hashish cigarettes are called - are for sale at many shops.

Oguz says the cannabis plant is also a lot easier to grow than opium poppies. Plus, Taliban fighters and corrupt government officials don't appear to be skimming off cannabis growers' profits the way they do poppy farmers.

But Kandahar Governor Assadullah Khalid says land owners like Ateegh are mistaken if they think their cannabis crops will be spared.

Mr. ASSADULLAH KHALID (Governor, Kandahar): You know, in our law, this is something illegal. We are against this, but we will have action this year against this, too. But still, poppy was the first priority.

NELSON: That's what Ateegh's tenant farmer, Jan Mohammad, is banking on.

Mr. JAN MOHAMMAD: (Speaking in foreign language)

NELSON: He believes as long as there is poppy, the government won't have time to go after cannabis. Khalid's eradication teams destroyed 20,000 acres of poppies last year. The farmer says that by the time authorities do get around to it years from now, he'll find another lucrative crop to grow.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kandahar.

BLOCK: To see how cannabis farmers in Kandahar filter their harvest to make hashish, you can visit npr.org, where you'll find a narrated slide show.

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