The British Navy frigate HMS Montrose captured a multimillion-dollar illicit stash of hashish this weekend out of Bahrain. It marks the third drug seizure this year alone by the crew and the ninth since the ship began its extended region in the area three years ago. The navy believes that the Montrose has been able to intercept over $125 million over this period. This haul is the largest of them all—it represents the largest bust in about ten years.
A Global Transit Hub for Trade
For those unfamiliar with the geography, the Gulf of Oman is the neck of water that allows the Persian Gulf to empty into the Arabian Sea. Pakistan sits on the upper mouth of the Gulf. The country, despite its bubbling cannabis reform, is a major transit country for international drug trafficking.
Bordered by Afghanistan to the north and Iran to the west, with a 500-mile border with China as well, Pakistan not only has a long history with the cannabis plant, but also has literally thousands of miles of porous borders which drug traffickers take full advantage of to ship hash and heroin globally.
Most of the illegal cannabis and hash shipped through Pakistan (which has a strict zero drug policy that still extends to high THC cannabis) comes from Afghanistan. A UN report from 2020 estimates that as much as 40 percent of the illicit heroin and hashish that ships through Pakistan comes from its northern neighbor. The country is also a major transit point for heroin being shipped illegally into China.
The International Silk Cannabis Road
Both heroin and hash travel out of Pakistan in several different ways. If they are shipped, they usually end up traveling northwest towards and through the Persian Gulf and then by land through Arabic states, transferred again by ship at the Mediterranean and end up in Europe. Drugs shipped south, into the Persian Sea, generally end up being transferred to Africa via Tanzania. From there, they tend to go overland through the continent to Nigeria, ultimately bound for North America or Europe.
There is a strong link between jihadism and organized crime when it comes to the illicit drug trade in this part of the world. As of last year, the Taliban also appeared to be shifting course when it came to the cannabis conversation—namely seeing it as a potential legal export crop that could bring in much-needed foreign currency after the overthrow of the secular government.
While legal export sales are, as a result of the Taliban takeover, verboten, there is nothing that stops them from continuing to exploit existing opportunities in the illicit trade.
Cannabis Legalization in Bahrain and the Region
Cannabis and hemp have long been used in this area of the world, although were made illegal thanks to both American and British influence. In 1997, the Control of Narcotics Substance Act made it specifically illegal to cultivate, produce, manufacture, extract, prepare, possess, or sell cannabis in Pakistan.
That has not stopped groups like the Taliban from both condemning its use publicly, but selling both cannabis and heroin illicitly to finance their existence.
Things have begun to change thanks to global legalization in the second decade of the 21st century. As of September 2020, the federal government approved the legalization of hemp production. The change of policy came in response to the global movement to legalize the plant and because Pakistani government officials saw a billion-dollar hemp export market potential for their country.
This, of course, also makes the seizure of cannabis plants and products all the more difficult. The first legal harvest of hemp was in December of last year. In October, the Pakistani Minister of Science and Technology vowed to implement a national cannabis policy by the end of 2021.
The proof of the effectiveness of normalizing cannabis in Pakistan might be, finally, beyond Navy interdiction, the final, most effective way to stop criminals from profiting from the current black-market trade that is clearly not going away just yet.
Marguerite Arnold is a veteran cannabis industry journalist, covering the market from Germany since 2013. Her second book, Green II: Spreading Like Kudzu, about the inside story of the first German cannabis cultivation bid, is on sale now in English and German.