Iran The Islamic Republic of Iran has a long history associated with cannabis use, and large swathes of the population continue to use cannabis in the traditional manner. However, the present regime has been severely clamping down on drug trafficking in recent years, in response to an increase in heroin and opium addiction rates.
Cultural Use of Cannabis
Iran—also known as Persia—has a rich cultural history, and has been home to a series of civilisations stretching back to at least 3,200BCE. Cannabis (known colloquially as bang) is thought to be indigenous to the Central Asian regions just north of Iran, which in pre-Islamic and early Islamic periods were primarily populated by Iranian-speaking tribes.
It is likely that cannabis spread to ancient Persia very early on, assisted by Aryan and Scythian tribes expanding westward from Central Asia. The Scythians, who occupied an area encompassing large swathes of what is now northwest Iran from the 7th century BCE to the 4th century CE, were well known to use cannabis for recreational and spiritual purposes.
Spiritual usage of cannabis is well-documented in Iran. The Zoroastrian Zend Avesta (compiled between 559BCE and 379CE) mentions use of bangha or banga several times, as an abortifacient and as a means to achieve spiritual enlightenment. The mystic Sufi sect of Islam also is well-known for using cannabis as a sacrament.
Iranian Cannabis Law
Iran has remarkably contrary cannabis laws, with possession and use being almost entirely decriminalised but dealing and trafficking being far more harshly punished. Possession of flowering tops of cannabis may be punishable by fines and even lashes, but intent to produce narcotic drugs must be proven. Drug addicts found in possession of less than one gram are also exempt from punishment.
Dealing and trafficking in amounts larger than five kilograms is subject to the death penalty, and even quantities of fifty grams or less is punishable by up to fifty lashes. Trafficking or dealing in as little as thirty grams of hashish oil can result in the death penalty.
Cultivation for the purpose of producing narcotic drugs is also banned under Iranian law, and is punishable by a fine for the first offence, fines plus 30-70 lashes for a second offences, fine, lashes and 2-5 years’ imprisonment for a third offence, and death penalty for a fourth offence. However, if not for the purpose of producing narcotics, cultivation is not always penalised.
The Modern Cannabis Trade
Iran shares long and porous borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan, two of the world’s largest producers of opium and hashish. A huge quantity of both drugs is trafficked through Iran along the Balkan trafficking route towards Europe, the Arabian Peninsula and Africa.
Iran also has a long shared border with Turkey, and in recent years growing porosity of the border along with increased movement of goods and people has led to an increase in trafficking between the two countries. Simultaneously, Kurdish resistance fighters pushed out of Turkey are refocusing their efforts on Iran and Iraq as new locations for drug trafficking operations.
Heroin and opium is seen as a far greater problem than cannabis and hashish. In 2011, Iran accounted for the highest rate of opium seizures, at 80% of world total, and 30% of heroin seizures.
Iran is a crucial through-route for drugs originating in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the government has built up formidable counternarcotics resources over the years in the struggle to control the flood of drugs flowing through the country. A vast sum is spent annually on border control including the construction of fences, and seizures of heroin and opium are among the highest in the world.
Under guidance from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Iran is working closely with Afghanistan and Pakistan to improve intelligence sharing and cross-border liaisons, in order to stem the flood of contraband flowing through its territories. The effort has been dubbed the “Triangular Initiative”, and while seizures have risen as a result of their operations, the flow of narcotics shows little sign of abating.
The Iranian authorities are also beginning to crack down on drug use, although heroin, opium and amphetamines are seen as of greater concern than cannabis.
Cannabis Arrests & Sentences
Large busts of hashish are made regularly in the eastern border regions near Afghanistan and Pakistan, although specific details of these are sparse. It was reported in December 2012 that in just one month, Iranian border police intercepted over 5 metric tons (MT) of contraband, although it is not clear what proportion of this was cannabis.
In 2011, drug offences accounted for more than 80% of the 676 executions carried out that year. Iran has a policy of carrying out mass public hangings; their use of capital punishment has drawn widespread international condemnation but appears to be on the increasing year by year. Iran’s failure to meet international standards on fairness in judicial proceedings has also been criticised, as well as its ongoing abuse of prisoners’ rights.
Iranians Arrested Abroad
Iranian nationals are also frequently arrested in nearby countries such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In 2011, police in Sharjah (one of the United Arab Emirates) foiled an attempt to import over 2.5 MT of hashish by boat via the Khor Fakken coast; twelve Iranians and two Pakistanis were arrested.
In 2012, Dubai’s anti-narcotics division announced the seizure of 55.8kg of hashish smuggled into the country by an Iranian national. In September 2013, a Saudi patrol intercepted a boat loaded with 552kg of hashish not far from the Saudi coastline. After a gun battle in which a suspect was killed, the remaining suspects—identified as Iranian—were taken into custody.
Cannabis Use in Present-Day Iran
Iran has the fourth-highest rate of drug-related deaths in the world, at 91 deaths per million people (in the 15-64 age group). It also has the highest rate of heroin and opium addiction in the world; out of a population of just over 77 million, over 3 million are thought to be addicted to drugs, mainly heroin and crystal meth.
In societal terms, cannabis use is not considered as problematic as other drugs. Cultivation for personal use is all but decriminalised, although it is only when used as a foodstuff that cannabis use is not viewed as a criminal activity. However, as long as discretion is maintained, use of cannabis as a recreational drug is generally unlikely to lead to arrest. Even if detained by police, it may be possible to avoid further action through use of bribes.
Hashish is traditionally smoked in a water-pipe or rolled into cigarettes, often mixed with tobacco. It may also be mixed with opium in a mixture known as ru? al-ajenna (“fairies’ spirit”), or mixed into a yoghurt-based drink similar to the lassi bhang found in India, but known locally as du?-e wa?dat.
Cultivation of Cannabis
The landrace varieties found in Iran are of the C. indica sp. afghanica subtype; they are short (typically reaching heights of no more than two metres) and are naturally high in cannabinoid content. They thrive in sunny, dry climates at altitudes of 1,500-2,000m.
Cannabis is cultivated in many areas of the country, particularly around the cities of Sava, Qasemabad and Šahriar in the mountainous northern province of Tehran. Cultivation also occurs around the beautiful southern city of Shiraz, which lies on a flood plain 1,500m above sea level at the foot of the Zagros Mountains.
Cannabis growers in Iran are highly-skilled, and will typically separate the male plants from the females before pollination can occur. Cannabis is usually planted in March or April and harvested from the end of August to the end of November.
In July 2013, it was reported that approximately 330 hectares of cannabis had been located and destroyed in the preceding three months alone, a sharp increase on the previous year’s total of 161 hectares. In August 2013, reports emerged that members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) had begun to rent fields in Iran for the purpose of growing cannabis, as security forces in Turkey have been cracking down on their operations in recent years.
Production of Hashish
Although the bulk of the hashish found in Iran is of Afghani or Pakistani origin, there is a small domestic industry producing hashish reported to be of exceptional quality. It is also believed that cannabis is transported to Iran from Afghanistan to be processed into hashish.
Hashish in Iran is made using a unique method: the female flowers are removed and kept in the dark to dry before being rolled up in a thick woven cloth and pressed and kneaded until the resin separates from the buds and adheres to the cloth.
Hashish of lower quality may be made using a similar technique, but with less attention paid to separating the female buds from the fan leaves. If the volume of plant matter is great, a horse is often used to trample the mixture in order to soften it.
Hashish oil is also reportedly made by selecting the finest female flowers, which are then dried, rubbed and pressed to separate the crystalline dried resin from the unwanted plant matter. The resulting fine, dusty powder is then added to a pot of lukewarm water and brought close to boiling point; the heat causes the resin to melt and appear on the surface of the water as oily globules, which can then be skimmed off. This method of oil extraction is basic but highly effective, and the results are said to be greatly intoxicating.
Purchasing Cannabis in Iran
There is a thriving hashish market in Iran, and purchasing small quantities for personal use is generally a simple procedure. Good quality hashish and cannabis can usually be purchased for $3-$4 per gram, and obtaining it is often as simple as approaching groups of locals who are observed smoking in public.
For foreigners, it is advised to exercise caution when attempting to buy and consume cannabis, as the Iranian police are known to focus on non-Iranians when it comes to arrest for simple possession. However, this may be due to the perceived wealth of foreigners and the likelihood of exacting bribes, as police are known to be receptive to bribery.
What Next for Cannabis in Iran
As the problem of heroin addiction continues to impact Iranian society, it is likely that anti-drugs campaigns will continue to intensify in the future. This may lead to restrictions on the currently tolerant attitude towards consumption of cannabis, but it is unlikely that the long culture of use that has developed over thousands of years will ever be eradicated.
It is important to document the history and current events of the ongoing drug war in every country that it occurs—for this reason, organisations like the Hash Marijuana & Hemp Museum in Amsterdam are crucial as they attempt to bring together information from various credible sources in order to provide the most accurate, up-to-date and unbiased information on the present global situation.