Azerbaijan The Republic of Azerbaijan lies on the boundary dividing Europe from Asia, and is a crucial part of the traditional trafficking route that each year sees thousands of tons of hashish and heroin transported from Afghanistan and Pakistan on to Europe and Russia. Azerbaijan also produces a small quantity of cannabis and opium.
History of cannabis in Azerbaijan
Cannabis has grown in the region that is now Azerbaijan for thousands of years, and was utilised from at least the 9th century BCE by the nomadic Scythian horse tribes that occupied the area—and as the area has been occupied by humans for as much as 700,000 years, it is likely that use began far earlier than archaeological records have so far shown.
Modern Azerbaijan (historically, the region known as Arran by the Persians and Caucasian Albania by modern historians) sits nestled between the ancient territories of the Persian and Ottoman empires, both of which are steeped in enduring traditions of cannabis and hashish use. Azerbaijan has been wholly or partly occupied or annexed to both empires at various points in its history; as well as this, Sumerians, Assyrians, Scythians, Armenians and Alexander the Great’s Hellenistic empire have all had control or influence at various times. Thus, its literature, arts, sciences and culture have been hugely influenced by numerous great civilizations—and cannabis occupies an important position within this culture.
Use of cannabis in Azerbaijan’s traditional medicine
Due to Azerbaijan’s strong culture of learning and literature, a wealth of medical and pharmacological texts written in Persian, Arabic and Old Azeri and dated from the 9-18th centuries are still available for modern scholars to make use of. References to cannabis are staggeringly abundant, and it is clear that the scholars of medieval Azerbaijan made extensive use of Greek, Indian and even Chinese texts to develop their own knowledge and their own pharmacopoeia.
Medieval manuscripts attest to the usage of differing words for hemp and drug strains. In Old Azeri, just kinnab is used for both; in medieval Azeri, kanaf refers to hemp while bang, banj, or hashish refer to drug strains and products. Hemp seed is shahdanah (from the Persian) or habb al-malik (from Arabic), both meaning ‘royal seed’. Naisha, meaning ‘joy’, is derived from Arabic and used to describe the dried leaves of cannabis, as is anasha. Ganja (flowering tops), lutki (cannabis soaked in wine), mudra (lutki with opium and henbane) and charas (hand-rubbed hashish) were also in common usage by medieval times, all coming from India or Sind (modern Pakistan).
Azerbaijani medicine of the medieval period was perhaps most influenced by Indian medicine, and as such Indian writings are quoted extensively and cannabis utilised in much the same manner as described in the Indian texts. All parts of the plant were used; even the roots were steeped to make a decoction or ground up to form poultices, for its antiseptic and antipyretic effect. Cannabis was used to treat various ailments, including catarrh, flatulence and nausea. Cannabis was also used to excite the appetite, sharpen the memory and reduce symptoms of diarrhoea. An excellent and extremely in-depth analysis of cannabis use in traditional folk medicine can be found here.
Cannabis in modern Azerbaijani folk medicine
Practice of traditional medicine in Azerbaijan suffered a serious and enduring setback with the establishment of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) in 1920; the occupying Soviet forces oversaw the closure of traditional herbal apothecaries and the burning of countless Arabic texts related to medicine and various other scholarly topics. However, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, restrictions on the practice of folk medicine have been loosened, and cannabis medicines have reappeared in some rural areas of the country.
Various cannabis preparations are utilised in the folk medicine of modern Azerbaijan. The leaves are used to treat quinsy (abscessed tonsils, a common complication of tonsillitis), urinary disease and prostatitis. They may also be steeped in arag (a vodka-like spirit) and used to treat colic and gastrointestinal complaints, or mashed in water to treat tumours, inflammation and boils. The seeds are boiled in milk and given as a decoction to treat asthma, bronchitis and laryngitis, or roasted to treat parasites in the gut. Female flowers are used to treat rheumatism and diabetes.
Cultural use of cannabis in Azerbaijan
Beyond use in medicine, cannabis has also long been valued for its fibre, its nutritional quality, and its intoxicating properties. Throughout the medieval period, the fibre was used to produce tow fibres—which are coarse and broken and used as upholstery stuffing, for example—and oakum fibre, which is fibre impregnated with pine tar and traditionally used in caulking (waterproofing on boats and buildings) and to seal cast-iron piping. Various other textiles including sacking and sailcloth were also produced from cannabis fibre. As is common throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia, cannabis seeds were commonly used in cooking or pressed to produce oil; in the latter case, the residual seed cake was used as animal fodder.
For purposes of achieving intoxication, dried leaves and flowers are typically mixed with tobacco and smoked in cigarettes or pipes, or the resin is collected to make hashish. Clearly, use of cannabis as an intoxicant has persisted for centuries, and was sufficiently widespread for it to be mentioned in contemporary sources that have survived to the present day. In the 16th century, the Oghuz Turk poet Muhammed Fuzuli wrote a poem in Old Turkic—from which modern Azerbaijani and Turkish are descended—entitled Beng ü Bâde (hashish and wine), in which he warns against excessive use of the two intoxicants while satirising two important political figures of the time.
Cultivated and wild cannabis in Azerbaijan
Just as in nearby Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, there is substantial variation in the types of cannabis found in Azerbaijan. C. ruderalis is commonly found growing wild in the mountains of the major Caucasus, in Nakhichevan (an exclave of Azerbaijan, surrounded by Armenia and bordering Turkey and Iran) and in the rural areas of Nagorno-Karabakh between the Kura and the Araks rivers. Over the generations, these wild plants have been selectively bred to produce fibre and drug cultivars, which have repeatedly escaped back into the wild and influenced the overall gene pool. As well as this, it is likely that high-cannabinoid strains from India and Pakistan have been introduced to Azerbaijan over the centuries, just as elsewhere in Central Asia.
Cultivation of cannabis in Azerbaijan is limited; small-scale cultivation of cannabis and opium poppy is more common in the south of the country, and the harvest is typically consumed domestically or within the Trans-Caucasus region. Although cultivation in Azerbaijan is not widespread, it is far from negligible: in 2011, Azerbaijan reported fifty-nine cases of cultivation resulting in seizures of 20.6kg of opium poppies and 3.4 metric tons (MT) of cannabis. There are apparently no reports of hashish production occurring within Azerbaijan, but given its proximity to notable traditional hashish producers such as Turkey and Iran, it is likely that small-scale production does occur in some areas.
Reports of cannabis cultivation are rare; however, in 2013 it was reported that a procedure carried out by Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources revealed the presence of 29 cultivated cannabis plants ranging in height from 1 – 3.5 metres, located within Arilig forest, in the Zagatala State Nature Reserve in northwest Azerbaijan.
Illicit cannabis trafficking in Azerbaijan
Due to Azerbaijan’s important strategic location at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and the Arabian Peninsula, it has become a significant transit country for heroin, opium and hashish primarily produced in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The majority of contraband entering Azerbaijan arrives via its southern border with Iran, but it may also arrive in the capital Baku from locations across the Caspian Sea such as Turkmenistan. Azerbaijan’s ongoing difficulties with securing its borders, along with increased security in neighbouring Georgia and Turkey, have rendered it increasingly attractive to traffickers in recent years.
The difficulties in controlling the borders stem in part from ongoing instability in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, an autonomous region surrounded by Azerbaijani territory that has been claimed by Armenia due to its high ethnic make-up of Armenians. Azerbaijan and Armenia have fought various territorial wars since the dissolution of the short-lived Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic (February to May 1918), which altered borders in ways that led to serious tension between ethnic groups.
The most recent conflict ran from 1988-1994 (although violence has persisted until as recently as 2012) and led to widespread unemployment, displacement of populations, and economic upheaval; the Arab Spring of 2011 also led to increased repression in Azerbaijan as authorities attempted to pre-empt any perceived threat to the government. This atmosphere has led to narcotics trafficking becoming increasingly attractive to Azerbaijan’s disaffected populations; furthermore, there are allegations that narcotics cultivation and trafficking is conducted in Armenian-occupied areas of Azerbaijan to fund the conflict.
This ongoing instability has also provided the ideal conditions for corruption to flourish. In 2013, it was reported that Azerbaijani authorities had been found to be falsely accusing political activists with trumped-up drug charges in order to secure their imprisonment and the silencing of their dissent; according to the report, dozens of activists, journalists and defenders of human rights have been arrested since 2011, and many have alleged mistreatment at the hands of the police.
Cannabis laws, arrests, and sentences in Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan law states that possession of narcotics in quantities deemed too excessive for personal use, but without intent to supply, is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. Possession with intent to supply, as well as production, cultivation and cross-border trafficking of narcotics is punishable by 3-7 years’ imprisonment; if violence is involved, the penalty is 5-8 years, and if conducted by an organised group, the penalty is 7-12 years. If a court determines that an individual found in possession of narcotics requires addiction treatment, they can issue a compulsory order with which the individual must comply or risk further punishment; repeated consumption of narcotics may be punishable by 2-5 years’ imprisonment or three years’ ‘restriction of movement’.
In 2011, Azerbaijan confiscated 557 kg of narcotics including 299kg of cannabis, 165kg of hashish, 52kg of heroin, and 14kg of opium. This marks a substantial reduction from 2010, which saw total seizures of 1.86 MT. In 2011, 2,341 individuals were arrested for crimes related to trafficking of narcotics.
Individual cases are typically small-scale (larger shipments are likely to be protected by traffickers and their paid officials, and mostly pass through unhindered). In 2014, the proprietor of a grocery store in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku was arrested after being discovered in the act of selling small quantities of cannabis from under the counter to his customers. In 2012, a shipment of weapons and narcotics including 4kg of cannabis was intercepted at the border with Iran; and in 2011, a villager in Gadabay region, western Azerbaijan was arrested while attempting to sell 5.4kg of cannabis.
Purchasing and using cannabis in Azerbaijan
Although narcotics laws in Azerbaijan are fairly strict, cannabis and hashish are abundant throughout the country, and usually can be obtained easily and for reasonable prices. It is important to avoid attention from law enforcement; typically, asking around local youths, or in marketplaces and bars, is sufficient to procure a supply of acceptable quality. Generally, what is available is of low to medium quality, and securing high-quality products may require extra effort and some good local contacts.
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