By RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service
ISHKEK — Kyrgyz cannabis is reputed to be among the most potent in the world, making it a lucrative cash crop for drug traffickers.
It appears ironic, then, that a homegrown addiction specialist in Bishkek wants marijuana to be legalized to reduce the number of Kyrgyz drug addicts, fight organized crime, and increase tax revenues.
Jenishbek Nazaraliev, a former presidential candidate who opened Bishkek's first private narcology clinic in 1993, wants the Kyrgyz government to consider a pilot program for the legal production of cannabis near Lake Issyk-Kul.
Rivaling the potency of marijuana from Afghanistan, international experts say cannabis is already being harvested by about two-thirds of all the families in Kyrgyzstan's Issyk-Kul and Chui regions.
Pot plants grow wild on thousands of hectares of land there. During the first eight months of 2013, up through the annual August harvest, Kyrgyz authorities say they destroyed more than 154 tons of cannabis in the Issyk-Kul region alone.
Nazaraliev says more effective regulation over the production and sale of marijuana is an issue that eventually must be tackled by the government.
He says the illegal drug market in Kyrgyzstan is now "fully controlled by the black economy."
Nazaraliev also argues that the producers, sellers, and consumers of cannabis could be better controlled — and that the government would bolster its tax revenues — if pot were legalized.
But Kyrgyzstan's State Drug Control Service disagrees. Authorities there say winning the battle against drug traffickers is the key to social stability and development in Kyrgyzstan.
And they argue that legalization won't rein in organized criminal traffickers because Kyrgyz-grown cannabis is exported through a network that extends far beyond Kyrgyzstan's borders — a smuggling route for illegal Afghan cannabis, opium, and heroin that passes through Kyrgyzstan on its way to Russia and the European Union.
RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service has spoken with villagers in the Tiup and Ak-Sui districts around Lake Issyk-Kul who are involved in the harvest and sale of Kyrgyz cannabis.
For centuries, cannabis has been harvested in Central Asia by horsemen who would ride naked through wild cannabis patches and then scrape the resin from their skin and the hair of their horses.
But most villagers around Lake Issyk-Kul now harvest the drug by rubbing cannabis plants between their palms to get a layer of black resin that they scrape off with a knife and package in matchboxes.
Local dealers buy the drugs from the harvesters and then sell them to bigger dealers who tour the area, forwarding their purchases abroad through international trafficking channels.
Kyrgyz villagers who harvest cannabis every August make no secret about paying bribes to police who turn a blind eye.
For their part, local police tell RFE/RL it would be impossible to eradicate a trade that is integral to the survival of so many people.
Former Kyrgyz Vice President and Prime Minister Feliks Kulov — who also headed the National Security Service — suggested during the 1990s that state-managed cannabis farms near Lake Issyk-Kul could help the authorities control drug production in the country.
But Kulov's proposal was derailed by critics who cited the negative experiences of opium growers in Afghanistan.
Nazaraliev, the narcologist who wants the authorities to reconsider legalization, ran in Kyrgyzstan's 2009 presidential election under the campaign slogan "Everything is Within your Reach."
He is now asking the authorities in Bishkek to consider whether "progressive European countries" and U.S. state governments that decriminalize marijuana care more about the health and welfare of their citizens than Kyrgyzstan.
Written by Ron Synovitz based on reporting by Merhat Sharipzanov and RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service