From cannabis prohibition to cannabis regulation in Iran
It is with the establishment of the modern state (1920s) and, especially, with the foundation of the Islamic Republic in 1979 that prohibition of drugs, including cannabis, becomes more stringent. In the ﬁrst part of the 20th century, cannabis was a primary concern to Iranian policymakers (and religious scholars).
Public anxiety has generally been manifested towards the mind-altering substances, such as alcoholic drinks and opium. The latter, in particular, was the object of a ﬁrst state-led monopoly during the 1920s and a total prohibition later in 1955. Popularly accepted within Iranians’ Mores and an integrated part of the traditional pharmacopeia, opium was re-interpreted during the modernisation process as a backward habit and a highly addictive substance.
This prohibitionist impetus coincided with the international effort, sponsored by the United States, to control (and later eradicate) opium culture. This new vision was eagerly espoused by Iranian lawmakers with the hope of demonstrating their conformism with Western modernity. Cannabis was not included in Iran’s ﬁrst drug laws and its control remained mostly a question of moral condemnation led by public intellectuals and religious zealots. Among social groups seen as principle consumers were university graduates returning from studies abroad and the dervishes who begged and smoked hashish with little care about mainstream morality.
In fact, the ﬁrst Penal Law of the Pahlavi era, approved on January 27, 1926, referred exclusively to the crime ‘of opium, charas and bang public intoxication [mo-tejaher]’( Penal Law, 1926). The punishment were severe when one considers that previously there stood no ﬁne: from eight days to three months incarceration or the payment of two to ﬁfty tuman. Despite pressures from the international drug control machinery, which had adopted measures to supervise and control cannabis, the Iranian government ignored the matter.
Only on June 22, 1959, Iran’s Senate approved the ﬁrst law that made cannabis illegal.
This ban laid the ground for Iran’s signature of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs. It was with the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979 that the Iranian state adopted a staunch and uncompromising approach towards all mind-altering drugs, including cannabis. This move made the Islamic Republic to adopt among the most powerful measures to control and repress drug traﬃcking and use, under the banner of Islam rather than that of the international drug control regime. The ﬁrst drug laws were approved by the Council for the Expediency of State (Majma‘-e Tashkhis-eMaslahat-e Nezam) in 1988 at a time of great political quakes.
With regard to cannabis, the law established that “the cultivation of cannabis [shahdaneh] for the purpose of narcotic production”is illegal. The penalties for cannabis were equal to those envisioned for opium production and they contemplated, in extremis, the death penalty (Anti-Narcotic Law, 1988). While the Iranian authorities successfully eradicated poppy cultivation during the 1980s, the cannabis plant was harder to get rid of.
Spontaneous ﬂowering of cannabis is not a rare sight across the Iranian plateau and given that the government’s priority remained to curtail the ﬂow of opiates in consideration of the heavy toll of opium and heroin use . Cannabis use remained partly an issue on the background. By the 2000s, in line with global consumption modes, larger numbers of Iranians had acquired a renewed taste for cannabis and its derivatives. The traditional hashish smokers, popularly known as the bangis, have in part been replaced by urban marijuana smokers, who belonged to the modern wealthier end of the social spectrum. This shift has signified also that cannabis is now obtained not only through illegal drug networks which travelled westward from Afghanistan, the country disposing of the highest quality of hashish, but also domestically. At times, cultivation of cannabis would occur in the balcony and terraces of urban centres, the Iranian climate being ideal for such agricultural endeavours.
Cannabis use surfaced in the public eye when the head of the Drug Control Headquarters, Iran’s umbrella organisation for illicit drugs, affirmed that a new drug, gol (‘ﬂower’) had become the second most common consumed drug after opium. Gol indicates the ﬂower of cannabis plant, which contains a higher level of THC and therefore produces stronger psychoactive effects. This was similar to the trend in Western capitals where cannabis potency has progressively gone up in part due to the governmental clampdown and in part in response to users’ preference . In response to this development, Iranian drugs policymakers have been discussing possible reforms that would update the old-fashioned prohibitionist regime.
One important case is given by the proposal to regulate through state monopolies the cultivation of the poppy and cannabis plant. This step would enable the supervision of legitimate opium and hashish consumption, which would occur according to speciﬁc limits about age, medical status and spatial location. Although the proposal has not yet been approved, it has been discussed in the highly influential Expediency Council. It has been taken into account and promoted beyond governmental venues. During the International Conference on Addiction Science that took place in Tehran in September 2015, leading scholars in drugs policy and public officicials organised a stand-alone panel that focused on regulation and legalisation of cannabis, putting forth models to be implemented in Iran.