Welcome to HASH, renowned as the world’s most socially acceptable recreational drug. Yet its illicit tentacles spread across the globe, financing everyone from poverty-stricken farmers to professional criminals. Hash is a business worth many billions of dollars a year with a truly dark and sinister side; fuelled by a chilling underworld network of dealers, gangsters, drug barons, crooked cops and even terrorists using sex, intimidation, bribery and murder in their quest for vast profits.
It’s reckoned that hash provides the biggest single source of actual income for organised crime across the globe.
The world’s law enforcers are failing to eradicate it from our streets because they tend to target other more lethal, so-called harder drugs. As a result, the hash business goes from strength to strength.
Even the United Nations admits that its attempts at hash eradication programmes have dismally failed. Authorities often resort to law enforcement crackdowns without implementing any economic or development measures to help cannabis farmers cope with the sudden loss of income. Officials are supposed to conduct alternative development projects in the areas targeted by the eradication measures. But, more often than not, no economic help is received by the farmers, meaning they often go back to producing hash in order to survive.
So what is hash and how has it hooked so many hundreds of millions of people around the world?
Hash is essentially a concentrated form of cannabis, made from the resin of the female cannabis plant. It is consumed for the effects of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, THC, which causes a euphoric high in the user. Hash can contain up to 35 per cent THC, while other forms of marijuana usually only have between 5 and 15 per cent. The strength of hash depends on the strength of the marijuana from which it is produced.
Smokers of hash say it alters sensory experiences and perceptions of reality and insist it is harmless. Critics say regular consumption can cause psychological dependency and destroy people’s motivational senses.
Hash can be produced through two different processes, depending on techniques employed in various parts of the world. In Morocco, the resin glands of the cannabis inflorescence – where its main psychoactive substance, tetrahydrocannabinol THC is concentrated – are collected by sieving when the plant has been harvested and dried. Sieving is also favoured in the Bekaa Valley, in Lebanon, where Lebanese Red hashish was renowned for its high quality up until the early 1990s, when the violence in the Middle East slowed down production.
The other technique for producing hash – used in some parts of Asia – is hand rubbing. Much less technical than sieving, it consists of rubbing the flowering cannabis branches back and forth between the palms and fingers until the resin builds up on the hands. This process occurs mainly in India, including Kashmir, and Nepal.
But sieved hash is much easier and faster to obtain than hand-rubbed hash. One kilogram of sieved hashish can be collected in only a few hours versus 10 to 25 grams of hand-rubbed hashish by one collector during a full working day. Sieving also makes hash more potent because almost no resin is left on the plant.
My interest in unravelling hash’s secret criminal underworld began more than twenty years ago when I was investigating the activities of one of Britain’s most notorious professional criminals. This man had been a London bank robber back in the 1980s but one of his oldest associates explained to me that cannabis was where this character – we’ll call him ‘H’ – had made his biggest fortune. ‘Going across the pavement’ – as robbery was known in London in the 1970s and ’80s – was a far more risky crime. Drugs were where the really big money could be made and ‘H’ insisted on dealing only in cannabis because he believed the authorities would be more lenient with him if he was caught. UK authorities had already started coming down hard on cocaine and heroin, so ‘H’ believed cannabis was much ‘safer’ for him. And, as I was to eventually discover, the profits he could make from hash were one hundred times that of any robbery.
So, I gradually began to unpeel a layer of the underworld that has existed very much beneath the radar for the past forty years. Those inquiries would eventually take me to many parts of the world because the influence of hash is truly global.
Many people I know simply shrug their shoulders at the mere mention of hash as if it is barely worth anyone’s attention, which perfectly sums up the way this illicit industry has been allowed to balloon into a multi-billion-dollar worldwide drugs network. The authorities are often too stretched to prioritise capturing hash gangs and, as a result, its availability has continued unchecked. As one old-time British criminal told me: ‘Most police forces aren’t that interested in hash and the villains like to make out it is virtually harmless.’
Yet most of the world’s hash is produced in some of its poorest nations where farmers can survive only if they cultivate cannabis. Many of these farmers say they would much prefer to be growing vegetables or herd cattle but hash provides them with a guaranteed income, which nothing else can do.
In Morocco’s Rif Mountains, for example, lives a population the size of Wales and it is estimated that at least 70 per cent of those inhabitants rely on hash for their income. Many believe the Moroccan government has deliberately ‘stepped back’ and allowed the area to virtually govern itself because the hash business employs such a big chunk of the population.
It is also clear that cannabis crops in many of the world’s so-called troublespots help finance terrorism. In Afghanistan, for example, the Taliban have a stranglehold over hash production because it helps feed and arm that war-torn country’s deadly insurgents. Hash is relatively easy to grow and the farmers know that even extreme bouts of weather are unlikely to ruin their crop.
Experts believe that pressure put on the cannabis farmers by gangsters and terrorists has led to the worldwide output of cannabis almost doubling in the past 20 years.
One of the first cannabis smugglers I ever met was a professional criminal called Tony from Kent, in south-east England. He’d set up a ‘removal firm’ with another gangster’s backing and began shipping cannabis in from Afghanistan and Turkey almost forty years ago. It was a perilous drive back then and still is to this day. Tony’s employees continue to drive the 10,000-mile round trip because the profits from hash remain sky high.
Tony and his secretive group of hardened professional backers are virtually guaranteed that their ‘cash investment’ will give them a return of five times the original amount within a month of the shipment arriving back in the UK. ‘It’s just a commodity to me and I run a business, which needs to make profit. It’s as simple as that,’ says Tony.
Across the world there are many other examples of massive hash shipments financed by the underworld. Tony’s trucks always carry legitimate goods such as fruit and vegetables as cover, which are themselves often sold in the UK for an extra, healthy profit.
Yet as I’ve probed further and further into the hash business, I’ve come to realise the risks are just as deadly as for any of the Class A drugs. I’ve been told of hitmen paid to kill rival criminals who dared to encroach into another gang’s cannabis territory. I’ve found myself feeling just as uneasy in the company of hash barons as any Colombian cocaine dealers or Turkish heroin smugglers.
I came across a Dutch yachtsman called Jak, who said he had a price on his head because the boat he used to smuggle hash had sunk in an accident off the coast of Majorca, with the loss of the lives of his two best mates. He explained: ‘That hash shipment was my responsibility and the criminals who paid for it are still after me because they believe that I owe them the cost of the entire shipment, even though it’s lying at the bottom of the sea alongside the bodies of my two friends.’
It’s five years since that tragic accident, but Jak believes he still has that underworld price on his head and he continues to watch his back and move house once every few months. ‘I’ve got no choice. If I went to see them to ask them to let me off, they’d probably shoot me dead on the spot. As far as they’re concerned that shipment was my responsibility and unless I pay them back the full value of the hash, then they will continue to try and hunt me down.’
So, the violence committed in the name of the hash trade is as cold-blooded and senseless as every other heavyweight criminal enterprise, it seems. Another hash smuggler called Billy, an expat Brit living in southern Spain, told me how he was cornered in an English bar near Marbella and beaten by two men with baseball bats after he was suspected of talking too loudly about his hash baron bosses.
Billy shrugged his shoulders as he explained how he was attacked in the middle of the bar in full view of all the customers. Eventually they dragged him outside into the street where they ‘beat me to a pulp’ and then left him semi-conscious in the gutter for all to see. It was a classic criminal reprisal, deliberately done in public so that anyone who might be stupid enough to talk openly about the gang would get the message loud and clear that they should keep their mouths shut.
Numerous other examples of the violent, destructive side of the hash business have emerged while researching this book. The cast of characters expanded as it became increasingly clear that hash’s criminal influence spread across the world and affects a vast range of people from all classes and backgrounds. Ultimately, most of it is down to one driving force; the major league criminals are only interested in securing the maximum profits, irrelevant of the hardship and danger for those producing and smuggling the actual drug. They see hash as a business like any other. And if they can’t guarantee themselves a fat profit, then they’ll happily mix the hash with anything to ‘stretch it out’ in order to retain those big profits.
There is a common misconception among recreational drug users that cannabis resin is always 100 per cent pure. It’s complete nonsense, as any hash baron will tell you, off the record. Cocaine users have come to expect their produce to be laced with all sorts of things from baby laxative to flour. Ask a hash smoker the same question, however, and he or she will almost always say they like hash in part because they know it’s pure. Yet by the time hash usually reaches many smokers in the West, it has often been ‘watered down’ by up to 50 per cent. Everything from bits of plastic to strips of tree bark have been known to be used to stretch out the profits for the hash gangsters.
It’s ironic when you consider that most hash farmers see themselves as hardworking people who pride themselves on the quality of their crop and who shrug their shoulders with a sense of apathy when they hear about the vast profits being made off the back of their ‘product’.
So perhaps not so surprisingly, behind most farmers there is a middle man, who usually has close criminal connections in nearby cities. He negotiates the prices paid to the farmers and then uses teams of smugglers, who will handle the drug’s journey across oceans and borders.
Often those same middlemen own the land that the farmers grow the cannabis on, which gives them even more control over the product. They in turn are often financed by local drug lords. In many of the world’s biggest hash producing countries there are even local politicians – and sometimes governmental officials – involved in ‘waving through’ the hash when it makes its way from the countryside into the cities and ports.
And relationships between the gangsters and their smugglers can frequently be tense. The smugglers are often led by foreigners, who come from the country where the hash is eventually going to be delivered.
One Scotsman I met called Geoff spent five years working as a smuggler in Morocco’s notorious Rif Mountains – the world’s biggest producer of hash. He described being a smuggler as ‘the worst fucking job in the world’. Geoff explained: ‘I had the Moroccans trying to con me every inch of the way and I had a paranoid cokehead of a gangster back in London accusing me of ripping him off. I hated it.’
Inside the twisted criminal underworld of hash it’s always best not to presume anything. Most of these characters live by their wits and know that their next shipment could well be their last. A lot of the criminals I came across had records for violence and robbery and involvement in heavier drugs, such as cocaine and heroin.
At the very top of the criminal ladder, there are a small number of kingpins making tens of millions of dollars each year out of hash. Most of these faceless gangsters lead through fear and intimidation, especially of their own workforce. They also often pride themselves on not even touching the drugs themselves, which makes them ‘clever’ in underworld terms.
Yet a surprisingly large number of criminals at the lower end of the underworld ladder smoke hash themselves. Many are so heavily into it that it is undoubtedly affecting their ability to operate in a criminal environment. The money that many of these villains boast they have made from hash often doesn’t stack up when you find them living in seedy rented accommodation in rundown city slums.
As someone who’s never particularly enjoyed smoking cannabis it’s been awkward to refuse the offer of a joint and sometimes, in the name of ‘research’, I have succumbed because it would be considered offensive if I didn’t sample the ‘product’.
Take Irishman Sean. He was the son of one of Ireland’s richest criminals and was very upset when I refused a toke of his joint after saying I was about to undertake a road journey of fifty miles and didn’t want anything to impair my ability to drive. He eventually calmed down but I realised then that I would have to smoke the stuff occasionally when it came to twitchy villains, who seemed to need the reassurance that their product is socially acceptable.
Inside the secret world of hash, I found countless layers of characters whose income was wholly derived from the drug. Yet it also became clear that much of the ‘vast profit’ projected by most law enforcement agencies whenever they try to crack down on hash smuggling is often greatly exaggerated. The phrase ‘street value’ is a favourite term used by the police after making up a figure of money in order to pat themselves on the back whenever they uncover a large shipment of drugs. That may sound a harsh appraisal but I believe it to be true.
And, finally, then there is the effect of hash itself. One of the wealthiest hash barons I met summed up what the drug meant to him personally when he told me:
“I wish I’d never set eyes on a joint, let alone getting involved in the ‘business’. Many of us go into it because we think the risks are lower than for coke and smack but the sheer volume of hash means that it is a non-stop conveyor belt and once you are on, it’s very hard to get off. My own son got hooked on hash to such an extent that he could barely function. In the end I had to get him committed to a clinic in order to get him off the stuff. In many ways it’s more evil than any A-class. It pulls you in gradually and then turns you into an apathetic person, incapable of making a decision. I feel so bad about my kid, especially since it was my involvement in the business that got him smoking hash in the first place. People need to know the true story of hash and the way it reaches their homes. They need to appreciate that it’s no better than any of the other stuff.”
Excerpted from Hash by Wensley Clarkson. Copyright © 2013 by Wensley Clarkson.
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block
London, W1U 8EW.
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