Marijuana grows openly in many parts of Turkmenistan. Opium and hashish have traditionally been smoked by local people and still used today. Drug abuse is growing among unemployed young people, which there are a lot of. In the early 2000s, a dose of heroin went for around $2 on the streets of Mary, which is said to have a particularly bad drug problem, partly because it lies on a major drug smuggling route between Afghanistan and Europe.

Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: “A former exchange student to the U.S. told me something else that Turkmenbashi wouldn’t have wanted me to hear: that because Turkmenistan was so close to the heroin-producing areas of Afghanistan hard drugs were a serious problem in the country. Heroin addicts were numerous, and their need for money caused crime. Turkmenistan was also a transshipment route of drugs from Afghanistan to Russia. Afghan hashish was freely available.” [Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007 ~]

According to the CIA World Factbook: Turkmenistan is a “transit country for Afghan narcotics bound for Russian and Western European markets” and a “transit point for heroin precursor chemicals bound for Afghanistan.” According to the United Nations: “The government of Turkmenistan does not report any synthetic drug use or inhalant use in the country.” Turkmenistan does not provide any statistics on drug related crime.

Cannabis in Turkmenistan

According to the United Nations: “There is no data available on cannabis cultivation or wild growth in Turkmenistan. Cannabis seizures in Turkmenistan have been increasing in volume since 2002 with 154.3 kilograms seized in 2006. However, seizures in the late 90s ranged between 79 and 245 times this volume. Given the dearth of information from Turkmenistan, it is difficult to speculate on the reasons underlying this seizure pattern. [Source: “Illicit Drug Trends in Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, April 2008 |~|]

“UNODC estimates from 1998 place annual cannabis use prevalence at 0.3 percent of the adult population, significantly lower than the rest of Central Asia. Due to the lack of official data from the government of Turkmenistan or additional independent studies, it is difficult to assess the accuracy of this figure or determine if it has changed since 1998. |~|

Hashish seizures in Turkmenistan, 2004-2010 (in tons): A) 0.04 tons in 2004; B) 0.02 tons in 2005; C) 0.21 tons in 2006; D) 0.12 tons in 2007; E) 0.07 tons in 2008; F) 0.3 tons in 2009; G) 0.1 tons in 2010.

History of Cannabis in Turkmenistan

Oxus or Bactria-Margiana civilisation, which was at its peak from around 2300 to 1700 B.C. in parts of preset-day Turkmenistan, produced pottery with what some have said are impressions made by hemp seeds, but this conclusion has been disputed. The Scythians, who lived in various parts the Eurasian steppe were first recorded to use cannabis in around 700 B.C.. [Source: Seshata, September 30, 2014, Sensi Seeds *-*]

According to Sensi Seeds:“The Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi (1929-2013) discovered the remnants of the Oxus civilisation during excavations near the Oxus River (Amu Darya) in 1976, and was the source for the claim that traces of cannabis were found in pottery stored in rooms apparently intended for purposes of ritual worship. It is thought that the religion of the civilisation was a form of fire-worship that later developed into Zoroastrianism, the official religion of the Persian Empire. He claimed that cannabis (along with opium and ephedra, other entheogenic plants indigenous to the region) was used to make an intoxicating beverage, known as haoma to the Zoroastrians and soma to the Vedic priests of India. He also observed modern cannabis plants growing in the vicinity of the temples.*-*

“According to Sarianidi, three ceramic bowls with traces of cannabis and ephedra were discovered, as well as a basin containing a considerable quantity of cannabis, and several items apparently used for extracting and straining the juices from the plants. It was reported that analysis of the samples confirmed the presence of cannabis and ephedra. The ceramic pots also contained layers of gypsum that had settled over the years and retained the impressions of small seeds stated to be from the hemp plant.*-*

“However, the positive identification of the substances could not be replicated in the laboratory, although attempts were made by later researchers. Furthermore, the identification of the seed impressions as being hemp has also been disputed, with some arguing that they are too small. This in turn has been countered by others who argue that ancient strains of cannabis produced generally smaller seeds, which has been demonstrated by other prehistoric excavations such as the Scythian burial sites in Pazyryk, which were unearthed between 1925 and 1949 by the Russian archaeologist Sergei Rudenko. Furthermore, crosses of modern indica varieties with the wild-type ruderalis that is still found in the region of the excavations have produced varieties thought similar to the dominant ancient phenotype; some of these varieties are notable for their exceptionally small seeds.*-*

“It is not possible to state with certainty that the substances found at the Oxus excavation sites were cannabis and ephedra, and the identity of haoma/soma remains a mystery. It is likely that, rather than any one plant, the drink was a mixture of plants with psychoactive properties, and that the plants themselves may have varied with locality or point in time—which, of course, does that preclude the likelihood that cannabis would have been among them. It is worth noting that at the point at which the Zoroastrian religion became formally established (circa 575 BCE), references to haoma cease and references to bhanga, which certainly refers to cannabis, suddenly begin to appear. Revered as the ‘bhanga of Zoroaster’, cannabis was used extensively in ritual from that point on, and was said to transport the soul to the heavens and reveal the higher mysteries.”*-*

Cultivation of Cannabis in Turkmenistan

According to Sensi Seeds: “Although there is sparse first-hand evidence of its use in Turkmenistan prior to 575 BCE, it is likely that cannabis has been known and utilised in the region for far longer; given that the plant evolved in the region and has a known tendency to colonised ground recently cleared by human activity, it is inevitable that people in the region would have encountered it fairly early on. [Source: Seshata, September 30, 2014, Sensi Seeds *-*]

“There is very little evidence available of either cultivated or wild cannabis in Turkmenistan, due in part to the nation’s notoriously closeted approach to international cooperation....Although Turkmenistan has relaxed its stringent policies to some extent since 2006, it is still impossible to enter the country without prior approval from the government, and both foreign and domestic researchers are restricted heavily. In 1995, the Russian Institute of Plant Industry was reported to be looking into using former research stations in Turkmenistan and surrounding countries to commence a cannabis germplasm preservation project, but this has apparently not transpired.*-*

“It is likely that several types of cannabis grow wild in Turkmenistan, particularly around rivers such as the Amu Darya (Oxus), which provide the greater part of what little water is available. Around 80 percent of the total area of the country is taken up by the cold, arid expanse of the Karakum desert; in the west, southwest and southeast are areas of mountainous terrain. In the colder, more northerly parts, C. ruderalis is likely to dominate; in southeast Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, it is thought that C. indica sp. afghanica evolved. This biotype is prized by modern indoor breeders, for its short, squat appearance, dense flower structure, and copious resin production; it is notable for its broad leaflets, which can give the leaf itself a lobed shape similar to a maple leaf, in extreme cases (unlike C. indica sp. indica, which originated in India and has narrow leaflets). Due the cool, arid climate and short growing season in southeast Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, C. indica sp. afghanica flowers quickly, and tolerates cold and drought fairly well, but is not resistant to mould and cannot withstand extreme heat. “ *-*

Cannabis Trafficking in Turkmenistan

According to Sensi Seeds: “Turkmenistan straddles the border between the northern and western routes from Afghanistan to Iran, which is estimated to transport around 53 percent of all opiates trafficked out of Afghanistan en route to Russian, Turkish and European markets. Opium is the most important commodity by far, but significan quantities of hashish are also smuggled along this route. While some minor production of opium poppy goes on in the south of the country, and there are reports of cannabis cultivation occurring in rural areas, Turkmenistan is not considered a producer country. [Source: Seshata, September 30, 2014, Sensi Seeds *-*]

“The majority of illegal drug seizures take place along the borders with Afghanistan and Iran. Turkmenistan shares a 446-mile border with Afghanistan and a 595-mile border with Iran; both are remote, rugged and mountainous in parts. Although the bulk of counternarcotics operations are concentrated at the borders, it is impossible to effectively police the entire length, and law enforcement agencies are severely underfunded, undertrained and underequipped. As well as this, ongoing refusal to cooperate fully with the international community hampers regional efforts to curb trafficking.*-*

“Contraband is typically transported by truck, but there is also an active subset of traffickers who travel on foot or by camel, and there are also occasional reports of trafficking via ferry across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan and Russia. Occasionally, there are reports of narcotics being secreted in the stomachs or body cavities of humans and animals.*-*

Cannabis Laws, Eradications and Seizures in Turkmenistan

According to Sensi Seeds: “The criminal penalties for trafficking of illegal narcotics in Turkmenistan range from two years’ maximum imprisonment for ‘light’ offenses such as possession, to twenty years’ imprisonment for ‘grave’ crimes; it is not clear what constitutes a grave drug-related offence, but in most countries the equivalent would be trafficking committed as part of an organised criminal organisation or in an effort to fund insurgency. Turkmenistan does not make light of cannabis offences, however—even cases that would be considered minor in most other countries. In 2008, it was reported that an unidentified individual was alleged to have bought cannabis seeds at a bazaar in the southern town of Tejen, and to have planted them and sold the 153 g of cannabis that resulted for the equivalent of $100. Both the alleged buyer and the market trader were arrested, and sentenced to eleven and ten years’ imprisonment, respectively. [Source: Seshata, September 30, 2014, Sensi Seeds *-*]

“Turkmenistan has a highly variable rate of cannabis and hashish seizures each year. In the late 1990s, seizures of cannabis and hashish were far higher than the current trend; in 1997, police confiscated 38 metric tons (MT) of hashish, and in 1998, 22.2 MT of hashish and cannabis were seized. By 2002, total seizures had declined to just 154 kg; in 2009 – 2012, seizures of cannabis amounted to 227.6 kg, 49.4 kg, 37.6 kg and 36.0 k and hashish to 327.2 kg, 122.9 kg, 11.0 kg, and 39.0 kg respectively. The majority of seizures take place on the borders, although significant seizures also take place in the capital city Ashgabat.*-*

“As there is so little data forthcoming from the reticent nation of Turkmenistan, it is difficult to ascertain the causes for this unusual pattern of seizures. The trade is clearly small-scale here, and some variation of routes throughout the region must occur, but effort put into counternarcotics operations must also vary considerably—perhaps dependent on available funding, or even simply some whim of a dictatorial regime.” *-*

Purchasing and Using Cannabis in Turkmenistan

According to Sensi Seeds: “It is difficult to obtain current, reliable information about the cannabis market in Turkmenistan, as travel in and out of the country is severely limited, and tourism practically non-existent. However, occasional reports do emerge; it is generally agreed that Afghan hashish is the standard offering, ranging in quality from mediocre to extremely high-grade and in price from around $5 – $16 per gram. Again, these figures may no longer be accurate. [Source: Seshata, September 30, 2014, Sensi Seeds *-*]

“According to some sources, prices for cannabis jumped drastically between 2009 and 2011, from $0.50-$0.60 per gram in 2009 to $8 – $16 in 2011. Wholesale prices also leapt upward in that time, from $1,890 – $5,600 per kg in 2009 to $5,000 – $9,600 in 2011. It is not clear what the reasons for this dramatic increase are, but availability may have been affected as a result of eradication efforts in northern Afghanistan.*-*

“It is reported that hashish is available in most urban areas, particularly in the south; in rural areas, it may even be possible to source good-quality locally-grown cannabis. When making enquiries, be sure to exercise discretion, as police are known to look out for potential targets from which to extract bribes.*-*

Heroin and Opium Abuse in Turkmenistan

Opium use has long been traditional in Turkmenistan; this has persisted in modern times and is now increasing, particularly in rural areas. Heroin is a growing concern to authorities. Intravenous use is said to common. [Source: Seshata, September 30, 2014, Sensi Seeds *-*]

According to the United Nations in 2012: “A wide range of anecdotal evidence suggests that addiction is a growing problem, with some reports advancing that every extended Turkmen family has at least one drug addict. It is entirely possible that the level of opiate use in the country is higher than currently estimated. An in-depth drug use study in Turkmenistan would significantly increase the accuracy of estimates for the country.” [Source: “Opiate Flows Through Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, May 2012 |*|]

According to the United Nations in 2008: “Statistics on drug abuse and crime in Turkmenistan are not available. This lack of information has a considerable impact on the possibilities to analyze drug and crime trends inside the country. In turn, this lack of data renders effective support to drug control and crime reduction efforts increasingly difficult. [Source: “Illicit Drug Trends in Central Asia”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Office for Central Asia, April 2008 |~|]

“Sharing a long border with Afghanistan on the crossroads between the northern and western trafficking routes has resulted in an influx of large amounts of opiates, mostly as transit but also likely affecting local demand. This influx coupled with a deteriorating social and economic situation have predisposed the population to problematic drug use. As with drug supply, information collected on drug demand is patchy at best. Turkmenistan does not provide data with any regularity, and has not participated in the UNODC 2000 Rapid Situation Assessment on drug abuse or submitted any information for the purposes of the survey. |~|

“In the past few years, the drug abuse situation in Turkmenistan has deteriorated. Estimated drug abuse rates rose from 13.2 in 1995 to 52.7 out of 100,000 people in 1998 – a four-fold increase over just four years. Official statistics show that, by the end of 1999, there were around 13,000 registered drug users in Turkmenistan, as compared to ca. 8,000 at the end of 1998. Thus, the dynamics of drug abuse morbidity were dramatic in the late 1990s when information was last collected. Seeing the dynamics of abuse across the region, it is likely that there has been a similar continued increase. |~|

“According to information from the late 1990s, 95 percent of all drug users are male. The peak age of drug use is between 31 and 35 years (19 percent). However, drug use is becoming increasingly common among young people, as well as among the female population. A trend of particular concern is that of the general number of drug addicts, an estimated 15 percent are injecting drug users, although official data puts the figure at only 5 percent. Compared to other countries of the region, this is a rather low figure. One reason for this may be that, by regional standards, Turkmenistan has a higher share of opium as opposed to heroin transiting. However, it must also be noted that the estimate refers to the late 1990s, when drug abuse in Central Asia only started unfolding. |~|

Estimating Heroin Use in Turkmenistan

In 2004, IRIN reported: “Since 2000, Ashgabat has failed to report any drug seizures to international organisations. Even specialised agencies of the United Nations, like the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) cannot access this 'sensitive' data. Turkmen authorities "believe there are no seizures because there is no trafficking,'' Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UNODC, said during a recent tour of Central Asia. "I would like to be reassured that's the case," he added. Any estimate of drug trafficking or addiction is simply a guess as long as the government does not publish statistics. This is partly because of officials' fear of releasing any news that might displease” the government. [Source: IRIN, August 2, 2004 /~/]

“According to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), the number of registered drug users monitored by the Turkmen health ministry grew from 5,953 (or 125 per 100,000 of population) in 1997, to 13,000 (or 242 per 100,000) in 2000, the latest data available. About 20 percent of drug users injected drugs intravenously and there was evidence that unsafe injecting practices were widespread. However, some experts estimated that the ratio of injecting drug users to all drug users in the energy-rich country could be as much as 30 percent. In general, within the Central Asian region the rate of [drug] addiction is about one percent of the population and I wouldn't have any reason to think that it's much different for Turkmenistan," James Callahan, the head of UNODC's Central Asia regional office, told IRIN from the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. /~/

“If that were the case, the estimated number of drug addicts would be some 64,000 - or one percent of the official figure for the population of Turkmenistan - 6.4 million. Whatever the real number, heroin is easily available in Ashgabat. One just needs to drive to Hitrovka, an unremarkable residential district of the city, where one injecting dose costs around US $1.25, and smoking prices vary between some $0.60 and one dollar, depending on the quality of the drug.” /~/

Turkmenistan Heroin Addicts

In 2004, IRIN reported: “Murat, not his real name, is steadily working the phone in search of something. At first glance, it is unclear why he appears so worried, but after listening to him speak on the phone, it is clear he is after his next hit of heroin. The unemployed 34-year-old, a resident of the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, does not consider himself an addict, given the stigma attached to it. He maintains he can quit any time, whenever he wants. At present, the financial burden of supporting his two children lies with his spouse, who teaches and does extra work to provide for the family - and her husband's heroin habit. [Source: IRIN, August 2, 2004 /~/]

“Kurban, a 46-year-old taxi driver in Ashgabat, told IRIN he once gave a lift to a doctor, whose son was pale and seemed sick. They asked him to drive to Hitrovka, where they stopped in front of a small house and kept him waiting for 10 minutes. "When the woman and her son got into my car I thought that he was ill, but when the mother said 'Hitrovka' and after looking closely it was obvious that he was having withdrawal symptoms, leg tremors etc," he said./~/

“The situation in rural areas seems to be no different, according to some local observers who say that in some cases young people even offer each other heroin at weddings instead of vodka, a traditional spirit at festivities. A retired teacher from one of the Akhal province villages gave the example of his neighbour, a young man who used to be well off before becoming addicted to drugs. "After he started doing heroin he lost everything. His family was ruined, his young wife couldn't stand his drug parties any more and divorced him taking their three children with her. Now he is selling his house piece-by-piece to buy the drug," he said. /~/

Causes and Solutions to Turkmenistan’s Drug Problem

In 2004, IRIN reported: “Drugs trafficked from neighbouring Afghanistan, the world's top opium producer, are the root cause of the problem, observers say. Others add that socio-economic problems, including unemployment - especially among young people - and huge changes in values along with limited prospects for the future, are contributory factors. Official indifference and alleged complicity in the drugs trade also fuel the problem.” [Source: IRIN, August 2, 2004]

An elderly man “aired his quite radical approach to fighting the problem. "They [drug addicts] are not human any more, they are not able to quit drugs. They are of no use to society and themselves. Therefore, they all need to be shot dead, this is the only solution," he said quite categorically, recalling the methods of the Stalinist era in the former Soviet Union.” /~/

“Turkmenistan was formerly one of the world’s foremost proponents of capital punishment, which was utilised in exceptional cases for the ‘heaviest’ crimes, including some trafficking cases. In 1999, it was decreed that the death penalty would be abolished forever.*-*

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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