Cannabis status in Contemporary Iran

The question of cannabis through the legal interpretation of religious authorities in the Islamic Republic of Iran.


Middle Eastern states and the Islamic world are known for adopting strict codes of prohibitions. These apply to sexual norms, such as premarital sex, social practices such as gambling and consumption behaviour as in the case of alcohol and narcotic drugs. Narcotic drugs however are hardly exceptional to Islamic societies and/or the Middle East. Across the globe, prohibition of narcotic substances has been a common trait of the 19th and 20th centuries Countries as different as the United States, Britain, China, the Soviet Union (and later the Russian Federation) as well as almost every Third World, Global South state have adopted forms of regulation and prohibition of narcotics. Yet, change is under way in this sphere.

Since the 2000s, several countries in the Western hemisphere have taken steps towards changing the regime of prohibition of formerly illicit drugs. In particular, cannabis has been the object of these undertakings. Portugal, Uruguay and a number of US states have adopted policies that regulate the use of cannabis among the population. Other states are in the process of evaluating and updating their model of cannabis regulation, such as Spain, Italy and, surprisingly, the Islamic Republic of Iran. The debate around cannabis’ status today is regarded as a turf of Western policy and scientific circles. The Global South and, particularly, the Middle East, where once the drug had its roots and tales of inebriation, is regarded as static. The Middle East is seen as a status quo region with regard to drug policy reform.

Yet, Islamic societies have had long and animated histories of debate around the merits and evils of cannabis. Persian and Arab scientists, religious scholars, poets and historians have evaluated the place of cannabis in their respective social milieu. They preceded by many centuries the drugs policy circles that are active in the 2000s. From this perspective, the potential of debate and change around the status of cannabis in the Middle East and Islamic World is high, even when compared with the social conservatorism of many Arab countries.

Hence, the article engages with the question of cannabis by looking at the legal interpretation of religious authorities in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The choice of Iran is justified for several reasons: firstly, Iran has a long history of drug use and cannabis has been part of the country’s intoxicant mores since times immemorial; secondly, the Iranian state is unique in that it combines religious exegesis with political machination through official channels; finally, among all Middle East and Islamic countries, Iran is at the avant-garde in experimenting in the field of drugs policy which makes an excellent case for the study of cannabis’ legal status and prospects of reform.

The article is the result of a direct engagement with Iran’s leading Shi’a authorities, the maraje’-e taqlid, ‘source of emulation’, who are religious scholars legitimated with the interpretation of religious rules. The authors redacted a list of eight questions (estefta’at) about the status of cannabis. The questionnaire touches upon cannabis’ legality in Islam, its potential medical use, the feasibility of domestic production and other relevant aspects of its social-religious life. Based on the responses, the authors analyse the difference in opinions among the religious scholars and speculate on the possibility of policy reform. Given the dearth of scholarly work about illicit drugs in the Islamic world, about which many readers might not be familiar, the article opens with an overview of the place of cannabis in the history of the Middle East with a especial focus on Iran. It discusses terminological ambiguities, references in religious texts and traditions, and the general interpretations within Muslim religious schools of thought. Then, it discusses the status of cannabis in contemporary Iran before tackling the responses provided by the religious scholars. Eventually, the article puts forward reflections about the potential implications for future policy developments on cannabis.

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