A German company has confirmed to Cannabis Now that it has reached a preliminary agreement to establish cannabis cultivation operations in Afghanistan’s north—corroborating claims made by the new Taliban regime’s Interior Ministry last month, which were met with much media scoffing.
Cutting Through the Media Confusion
It all began with a Nov. 24 tweet (in English) from the Ministry of Interior Affairs of the Taliban’s “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” declared after the militant group seized control of the country in August. It stated that the deputy minister for counter-narcotics “met with a representative” of a corporation called Cpharm, which is to “invest $450 million in setting up a hashish-processing company in Afghanistan.”
The tweet stated that “medicines and creams” are to be manufactured at the facility (indicating that the word “hashish” was being used as an imprecise stand-in for cannabis). It added: “The project will be officially launched soon and hundreds of people will get job opportunities on the project.”
That same day, a report by Kabul-based Pajhwok Afghan News quoted an Interior Ministry representative, Qari Saeed Khosti, making the same announcement. Regarding the outlawed status of cannabis in the country, Khosti said: “It is grown nationwide and we want to set a legal framework for sowing this illicit crop.”
This report initially identified Cpharm as an Australian firm. This was later corrected, and it was changed to German. Khosti made the correction on Twitter, saying “Our talks were not with…an Australian company, but a German company.” The confusion seems to be due to the fact that the Australian Cpharm is the first to readily pop up on Google. But Khosti’s tweeted correction only went out in Pashto—not in English.
By then Reuters had written up the Pahjwok account, and secured a denial from one Cpharm of Australia, a small consulting company outside Sydney that has nothing to do with either cannabis or Afghanistan. But with the Reuters coverage, the misinformation went global, and Cpharm quickly issued a mortified press release: “We have no idea where the Taliban media release has come from and want to assure everyone that it should not be connected to Cpharm Pty Ltd Australia.”
On Nov. 25, Pajhwok reported the Australian company’s denial, and apparently at that time updated its own original report, changing it to identify the “Cpharm” in question as a German company.
Forbes dismissed the whole thing with this headline: “Taliban Trolls World With Afghan Marijuana Factory ‘News.’” The story suggested it was part of a strategy to use “edgelord memes” to “own the West online.” While the disavowals of the Australian firm were reported, there was no mention of any German one.
Albuquerque’s The Paper similarly asked: “Is the West being trolled?” The account noted Khosti’s tweeted correction, but mysteriously asserted: “Researchers have been unable to find any trace of a German company called Cpharm or any variations of the name, and no representatives of a company of that name have come forward to confirm the deal with the Taliban.”
Apparently, these researchers failed to do a simple Google search. A few seconds on the search engine reveals the German firm in question to be Entwicklungsgesellschaft CPharm International—or, CPharm International Development Company. It boasts on its website (in German) of its work in development of “cannabinoid-based medicine,” and its operations in several countries around the world—including Afghanistan.
The Real CPharm Speaks
This company was correctly named in a few accounts in the German press. On Dec. 10, the Berlin tabloid Bild headlined (in German): “The Taliban are hoping for a lucrative cannabis deal with Germany!”
The paper claimed to have confirmed with Khosti that the new regime is in talks with the German CPharm. The Bild account was picked up by some other German media outlets, but seemingly no American ones.
Cannabis Now called the CPharm International offices in Bonn and spoke with CEO Werner Zimmerman. He says that the Interior Ministry announcement “had not been agreed to by us,” but acknowledges that his company has big plans to grow cannabis in Afghanistan.
“We started talks with Afghanistan in 2017, when their parliament passed a medical cannabis law,” Zimmerman says. “In November 2020, we started to establish infrastructure near Mazar-i-Sharif in the north of the country, bringing in experts to build a laboratory. But the former government put in place by the Americans was very corrupt.”
With the fall of that regime to the Taliban advance in August, “I had to fly out all my people, with no help from the American government,” Zimmerman complains. But he says his company believes it has better prospects for a deal under the Taliban.
“The new government loves us very much, because we are their voice to show the world how the old government betrayed everyone.”
Zimmerman says the company will be engaged in “contract farming,” building an “extraction center” to process cannabis grown on plots owned by local landlords. “Local growers will get our seeds and meet our industry standards.” He says his company is also operating under similar arrangement in Morocco, which legalized cultivation for export earlier this year.
He again complains: “The previous government was in bed with criminals who wanted to keep a monopoly on illicit cultivation and blocked our contract. Why has the law existed since 2017 and they never proceeded? America has been propping up a corrupt government.”
Is It Legal?
Afghanistan does seem to have quietly legalized commercial cannabis cultivation in 2017. CPharm sent to Cannabis Now an electronic document entitled “Implementation of a state-of-the-art agro-pharmaceutical project with 100% export quota in the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” It is stamped: “Confidential, Bonn/Kabul, December 2021.”
The document states, in slightly stilted English: “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has the Medical Cannabis Law Nr. 1284 since 2017 for production, processing, transport and export of pharmaceutical cannabis. The former Goverment…ignored it driven by excessive corruption… We applied offically for the Afghan Medical Cannabis Licence already in Nov 2020.” (Sic)
The 2018 Annual Report of the UN’s Vienna-based International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) does state: “The Government of Afghanistan took some notable legislative measures to strengthen national responses to drug-related challenges in the country. It adopted a new counter-narcotics law in February 2018 that was aimed at further strengthening coordination of drug control activities in the country and harmonizing the provisions on drug offences with the newly adopted penal code. In the same month, the new penal code entered into force; it is aimed at improving the country’s compliance with international human rights and criminal justice standards…”
An accompanying press release from CPharm (in German), dated Dec. 14, says that high-level talks between the company and Afghan officials opened “at the end of 2020.” Company representatives supposedly met with cabinet ministers, including the one responsible for drug control, and the first vice president (presumably Amrullah Saleh, who is now leading anti-Taliban resistance forces and claiming to be the country’s legitimate president). The press release expresses confidence that the talks will continue despite the change in regime: “The concepts developed in this phase have attracted the interest of the ministries of the new government.”
Cannabis Now called the Afghan embassy in Washington DC, which continues to be staffed by personnel from the ousted government. When asked to corroborate the claims about CPharm’s interests in the country, a representative from the legal department said: “We cannot comment on anything the Taliban has said. We have nothing to do with them.” He would not confirm that Afghanistan has legalized commercial cultivation of cannabis.
It should be remembered that the last time the Taliban were in power, from 1996 to 2001, they cracked down hard on both cannabis and poppy cultivation—but during the following 20 years that they were in insurgency, they were widely accused of raising funds by imposing “taxes” on these illicit crops. It also remains uncertain whether, or to what degree, the Taliban regime will honor the legal code of the old government.
Is It Politically Feasible?
The CPharm electronic document states that the company’s prospective location for its operations is in Balkh province. This is the northern province of which Mazar-i-Sharif is the capital, and is a traditional heartland of cannabis cultivation in Afghanistan.
The document describes the company’s aspirations in socially responsible terms: “The objective is to build an ecological, sustainable value chain in agriculture and pharmaceutical industry in the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan to provide a highly profitable…alternative to the current No. 1 and 2 of the Afghan economy, mining and illegal poppy and cannabis industries for the international drug market.”
Establishing operations in Afghanistan poses some obvious challenges. The document states that CPharm has been seeking approval for the project from Germany’s government: “Initial discussions at the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices (BfArM) have indicated that the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan can be classified as an acceptable supplier of medical cannabis for Germany and the EU…”
However, while the document states that the company foresees production at the Balkh facility of “medical THC and Novel Food CBD,” the Bild account noted reports that Germany’s incoming coalition government will actually legalize adult-use cannabis.
The new “Traffic Light” coalition brings together the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), the center-right Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the ecologist Greens party. (Their respective colors are those of a traffic light—red, yellow and green.) Although somewhat socially liberal, outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel was of the more traditional center-right formation, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The FDP is more socially liberal than the CDU, and the new chancellor Olaf Scholz is from the center-left SDP. Since the government transition earlier this month, there has been growing talk (although none of it yet official) that the new administration will move to legalize cannabis.
Bild wrote that CPharm and possibly other companies “are betting that the legalization of marijuana planned by the Traffic Light can attract German companies that invest in Afghanistan and import cannabis products.”
In his comments to Project CBD, Zimmerman implies that an overhaul of the European Union’s Good Manufacturing Practice standards (EU-GMP) could allow import of outdoor in anticipation of adult-use legalization. That imported into the EU for the medical market must currently be indoor, with certain exceptions depending on the degree of processing from herbaceous flower and the laws of the destination country. The anticipated cultivation in Balkh would be both outdoor and greenhouse, Zimmerman says.
The situation in Afghanistan generally has the international community in a bind. No government on Earth has yet officially recognized the “Islamic Emirate,” and the Taliban’s ugly human rights record since taking power provides a powerful disincentive to do so. Reprisals against figures associated with the old regime have been reported, as well as ethnically targeted killings. Girls are still barred from attending middle school. Amnesty International in September charged that the Taliban are “stamping out human rights in Afghanistan.”
On the other hand, the near-complete collapse of the economy, compounded by drought and mass displacement from the war, has the UN warning of a “profound humanitarian crisis” in the country—raising the imperative for aid and investment.
Germany suspended development aid to Afghanistan after the Taliban took over in August. However, in light of the desperate need in the country, Berlin has now vowed to resume aid, working through non-governmental organizations on the ground and bypassing direct assistance to the new regime. In November, German diplomats met with Taliban officials in Kabul to try hash out a working arrangement.