For pot smokers in the Russian-speaking world, there’s no more hallowed ground than the rolling, arid plains of the Chu Valley, a sprawling steppe where cannabis grows wild across 540 square miles. A good friend from Kazakhstan once described it to me as a magical place where one can frolic in acres of brilliant
green pot fields. So when the kind folks at the Kazakh Interior Ministry offered me a guided tour of this cannabis Eden—albeit conducted by narcotics officers—it was, obviously, an offer I couldn’t refuse, whatever my qualms about the criminalization policies that my hosts were paid to enforce.
Oleg Gorbunov, who publishes under the name “Oleg Weedy,” is the author of the Cannabis Encyclopedia, the only volume of its kind in the Russian language. He grew up in Soviet Ukraine but has lived in Belgium for the past 15 years. According to Gorbunov, the natural potency of Chu Valley pot was legendary all across the Soviet Union.
‘When I was growing up, everyone knew that the best stuff comes from the Chu Valley. It was very rare and not so cheap. You could get local weed, but Chu weed—thatwas the real shit,” he recalled. “Everyone knew that just a tiny bit of Chu Valley hash sprinkled into a papirosa cigarette was enough to get three or four guys high for hours.”
No one knows exactly how long cannabis has been growing in the Chu Valley. Some locals speculate that traders brought the seeds centuries ago from modern-day Pakistan while traveling along the Silk Road.
The wind supposedly blew the seeds all over the place, and it’s been growing around our parts ever since,” said Kuat Zhapabayev, an affable senior drug-enforcement officer, speaking to me over a lunch of horse meat, traditional ribbon noodles and more horse meat. “It’s grown here all these years, and there is no way to destroy it.”
Indeed, the authorities’ efforts to eradicate Chu Valley pot have consistently proven futile. There have been sporadic burning operations, but the plants simply sprout up again thanks to their deep roots. Using pesticides would seriously threaten the local ecology, experts said.
Many accuse the police of being financially involved in the Chu Valley drug racket and say they have little interest in seeing Chu pot disappear. Numerous law-enforcement officials interviewed for this report denied profiting off the drug trade, though several sources told me that the cops’ paltry wages—anywhere between $300 and $500 per month for drug cops in the region—do make corruption a tempting means to feed the family.
Most of the Chu Valley’s weed is wild cannabis known locally as dichka, whose THC content reaches a moderate 3.5 percent. Chu weed connoisseurs, however, praise the dichka for its pleasant high and minimal “hangover.” A few days before I discovered these traits for myself, I mentioned to a regular pot smoker in Almaty—Kazakhstan’s cultural and economic capital—that I rarely smoke pot because of the mental sluggishness that usually overwhelms me the following morning.
“You’ve clearly never smoked our weed,” she said alluringly.
Local authorities first registered the presence of cultivated Cannabis sativa imported to the Chu Valley from India in 1926. Soviet officials saw little need to criminalize Chu Valley pot until 1969, when getting stoned became an increasingly popular pastime among the local youth. By the 1980s, much more powerful strains of cultivated sativa from India and Pakistan began flourishing there.
The Kazakh Interior Ministry estimates that the Chu Valley currently produces around 140,000 tons of marijuana and 5,000 to 6,000 tons of hashish each year, most of which is used locally or trafficked to Russia, typically via the nearby city of Shu, one of Kazakhstan’s key railway hubs. It’s unclear exactly how far west the herb makes it, though officials told me that a drug runner recently arrested in the Russian republic of Tatarstan was carrying Chu Valley hash destined for Western Europe.
But there was a catch.
The bricks of hash had the image of a camel stamped onto them. Turns out that our hashish makes it to Europe and is sold there as Pakistani hashish—our Chu hash!” said Zhapabayev, who currently heads up the “Delta Valley” unit in Kazakhstan’s Dzhambul region. This is a team of fewer than 30 drug cops charged with patrolling the 500-plus square miles in the valley where wild cannabis