Religious interpretation of Cannabis in Iran

Legislative reforms and policy developments are influenced by multiple institutional and knowledge agents. Drugs policy, too, operates through various lines of enquiries. Religion, understood as a body of traditions, ethics and dispositions, is one important aspect. This of course is relevant in the context of the Islamic Republic, where religion stands at the foundation of the political order. There are several reasons why the role of religion is key to the study of public policy in Iran. Firstly, the Islamic Republic is a political machine that combines secular institutions of government  such as anti-narcotics agencies  with religious forms of political formulation. The latter is best exemplified  in the fact that Islam and Islamic law, as developed through the Shia Ja’fari School, are the base of the Constitution as written in 1980. This means that laws and policies adopted by the state have to go through a process of evaluation that ensures their religious validity.

When parliament approves a law, the text goes through an evaluation from an ad hoc body named the Guardian Council, which acts as a Constitutional Court. The Guardian Council assesses the laws based on the accordance with Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). If the law is considered against Islamic law, it is rejected and sent back to parliament Secondly, Shia Muslim refer to a marja‘, a “source of emulation” who is knowledgeable about religious affairs, to regulate the everyday religious practice. This person is a learned scholar, specialised in religious exegesis, with an undisputed authority among its peers. There are generally many marja‘s at the same time, so Muslims are free to choose whom to follow.

The interpretation of the marja“ is the ‘final word” on an issue. In modern Iranian history, there are examples  attesting to the social power of these religious figures.  In 1890, the Iranian government under the Naser al-Din Shah signed a concession that granted a Tobacco monopoly to the British Empire. Mass protests erupted in the cities and a leading Shia authority, indeed a marja, emanated a fatwa (a religious opinion) calling for the boycott of all tobacco products. The boycott was so successful that it is said that one of  the Shah’ s wives told the shah that she and those around her would avoid the use of tobacco because the marja had declared its use religiously forbidden.

As Walbridge suggest, the shah’s wife listened to the marja‘ rather than the husband. Following the establishment of the Islamic Republic, the role of the marja“ has gone through a double process. On the one hand, it has gained prominence, increased its financial tutelage, and found itself closer to the political machine. On the other hand, they have seen their leverage eroded by the authority of Iran’s  head of state, himself a religious scholar (faqih).This coexistence allows Iranian citizens (of Shia faith) to seek the opinion of their marja‘ on matters of their concern, while being still expected to respect the laws of the state.

Religious interpretation has been the engine for radical change in the last three decades. For instance, Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, declared the legality and acceptability of sex change surgery. His religious response enabled people seeking gender reassignment, to find the support of the Iranian state in the process. All costs and assistances are today covered by state institutions and transgender people are fully recognised in their rights. Another example is provided by the current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who has published his official opinion with regard to advanced fertility treatment.  He believes that treatments such as in-vitro fertilization, including practices using donor eggs and donor sperm, are allowed and in line with Islamic jurisprudence, a position that puts him far ahead of many regulations worldwide.

In the field of drugs policy,  the marjas have expressed condemnation of drug trafficking and called for state support to solve the question of drug addiction. In the 2000s, harm reduction measures were approved and adopted nationwide, with the ideological support of leading clerics. The religious authorities approved of practices such as needle exchange  and distribution, methadone maintenance and other generally controversial  measures. Recently the Iranian government has approved the opening of two safe injection rooms in Tehran. No clerical opposition was manifested towards this project. First, for the majority of the religious scholars questioned, cannabis is not haram, that is to say that it is not totally forbidden. This is no minor result if one takes into account the uncompromising ban on drug use currently in place in Iran.

The fact that, from an Islamic law perspective, the substance has an ambiguous status means that discussions around its potential regulated administration can gain legitimacy in the public debate. Regulation of administration is what the large majority of the marja‘s suggest with regard to this substance.

Secondly, and crucially, the majority of the scholars is of the opinion that if cannabis is used for medical purposes, which must be demonstrated and justified through scientific and medical research, there is no ban on its use, as long as it is justified for reasons other than intoxication and inebriation. Some of the scholars argue that, given the health risk that the substance might cause, its administration must occur with a strong supervision of the state and with caution. In a nutshell, one can infer the structure of a state regulated model for medical cannabis. The marja‘s do not specify what does state supervision signify, as organisational aspects are the turf of political administrators and not of the clerical jurisprudence. One could speculate that by state supervision it is intended a strict control on production and sale of cannabis, according to specific rules regulating consumption and administration.

Thirdly, cultivation of cannabis for pharmaceutical production is regarded as legitimate for the majority of the scholars. Should the Iranian government take steps towards the cultivation of medical cannabis, as it is done in many countries, religious authorities would not pose objections as long as this is done with careful supervision. Some, nonetheless, would object  on the ground that the substance is prohibited in itself. In principle, production and cultivation is not allowed if the objective is to transform the substance into something regarded as forbidden. That implies that, in hypothesis, cannabis could not be exported to countries where it is illegal. The legal argument adopted by the marja‘s insists on the respect of the laws in place in the country.

Fourthly, one wonders, for instance, whether cannabis with a very low THC levels (and high CBD) would qualify as a non-intoxicant substance. If that is the case, then its consumption could be regulated with no religious concern because the substance does not intoxicate the consumer.

Finally, none of the scholars considers cannabis a fully legal and permitted substance according to Islamic law. Its legality, six out of eight argue, is subject to conditions, circumstances and limits. The question on impurity (najes) is significant because it bears upon cannabis users and their relation to the rest of society. Impure substances and people who get in contact with them are to be avoided. It is said that everything is pure for Muslims, unless proven otherwise.All the scholars agree that cannabis and its derivatives are pure (that is to say,are not najes because they don’t belong to the list of impure substance that has been redacted over the last centuries.

As for medical use of cannabis during the month of Ramadan, most of the scholars suggest that it is forbidden and it breaks the fasting and should therefore be avoided. However, one of them, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, one of the most influential marja‘s worldwide, declares that it is allowed for the sick to use medical cannabis if not using it represents a harm on the person’s health. For most of the scholars, praying is valid while using cannabis, as long as the person praying understands what he/she is saying. While overall the marja‘s maintain a conservative standing on the question of drug use, when asked to respond on the religious validity of cannabis use, for  instance, for medical reasons, they demonstrate a level of pragmatism, that arguably could bestow some legitimacy on proposal of cannabis law reform.

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