Could Iran be the next country to legalise cannabis and opium?

Iran burns drugs in an annual ritual – but levels of use remain high. Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA

After Uruguay courageously legalised the use of cannabis under a new drug policy, could Iran be the next country to make it legal? From the outside, the image of Iran as retrograde and inherently conservative hardly fits with the reality of a more dynamic domestic political debate within. But drug policy is one of the areas of debate in which the Islamic Republic has produced some interesting, yet paradoxical, policies.

Iran has a conspicuous drug addiction problem – which officially accounts for more than 2m addicts (though unofficial figures put this as high as 5-6m). Drug traffickers risk harsh punishments that include the death penalty. Yet Iran also has very progressive policies towards drug addiction, which include distribution of clean needles to injecting drug users, methadone substitution programmes (also in prisons) and a vast system of addiction treatment.

Iran remains a country that is hard to explain. However, a new approach of drug control could build on what is already a progressive model, but one that actually stems the level of drug abuse in the country. The country is currently paying twice the price: of militarised anti-narcotics strategies and increasing medical problems related to drug use.

The council of expediency

During a recent conference on addiction held in Tehran, Saeed Sefatian, a prominent Iranian official and head of the working group on drug demand reduction in the Council for the Discernment of the Expediency of the State (also known as the Expediency Council), illustrated what could become a potential alternative to Iran’s current drug policy – including a move which that could include measures towards legalisation of cannabis and opium.

Recovered addict shows support for addicts in southern Tehran. Maziyar Ghiabi, Author provided

The Expediency Council is an institutional body that was established in 1987 by then Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and its main objectives are to identify major political challenges, institutional strategies and long-term policies of the country. The council acts as the advisory body to Iran’s highest political authorities.

The Expediency Council also plays a critical role in national drug policy: all Iranian legislation is discussed and voted for in the parliament, except for drug laws, which are both discussed and legislated in the council.

Already in the early 2000s, Iranian legislators managed to get the council’s approval for the controversial and progressive set of harm reduction measures. These included the implementation of nationwide distribution of clean syringes to injecting drug users and methadone substitution treatment both inside and outside prisons, measures which were unthinkable to implement in other Muslim countries as well as in many Western states.

After ten years of harm reduction policies, Iran accounts for more than 6,000 methadone clinics and numerous programmes of support and assistance to drug users.

The harm reduction policy allowed the Iranian authorities to tackle the crisis embodied by HIV epidemics caused by widespread injecting drug use (through shared needles, for exampe), a phenomenon which today is said to be under control, and had gained Iran the praise and recognition of international observers, including the World Health Organisation.

An indigenous Iranian model

Yet, Iran’s drug addiction problem persists. Time is ripe for a shift in focus on a new subject, which has remained largely undiscussed over the past decade: drug use (as opposed to addiction) among the general population. As Sefatian has said, the state needs to manage all areas of drug policy: cultivation, production, supply and consumption.

Poppy pods – homegrown not imported? Zyance, CC BY

However, rather than implying a swift liberalisation of illicit drugs, Sefatian suggested another direction: re-introducing the cultivation of plants such as poppy and cannabis under state supervision; legalisation of cannabis and opium use under specific circumstances outlined by ad hoc laws, for instance, only in private places and for opium – as he told me – only for people above a certain age. The latter, in particular, is reminiscent of pre-1979 revolution drug laws where opium vouchers were distributed to all registered opium users above the age of 50. The current regime already envisages the prescription of opium tincture to drug abusers registered at state addiction centres, therefore the ground for selective legalisation is in part paved.

Given that cannabis and opium are both indigenous plants that have had a historical presence in Iran, they are also a good place to start a new indigenous approach to drug control. The way this new strategy towards drug use is taking shape is that of a comprehensive discussion among Iran’s drug policy, addiction, anti-narcotics and social policy experts through the Expediency Council, which is the institution that has the power to carry out this change.

This is no smooth process or fast-track plan and, indeed, the obstacles and critics to a potential redirection in drug policy are many. Conservative politicians emphasise that drug use is fundamentally criminal and must be repressed - a very similar argument made by prohibitionist advocates in the US. Many in the medical community think that drugs should be illegal because of the potential for harm and that the current policy is sufficient to keep the risk of HIV and addiction disorder under control. Notwithstanding this, the advantages of a new legalisation process outweigh its risks.

A more radical model

If Iran were able to reform its drug policy, the prison population would drop remarkably (given that in the current condition, about 60-70% of inmates are charged with drug-related offences). The state would access new economic resources - through the production and selling of previously illegal drugs - which are today the turf of large criminal networks. The agricultural sector would benefit greatly from the cultivation of cannabis and poppy and the land is suitability for these crops.

New financial resources could enhance public awareness campaigns. Use of harder drugs, such as heroin and shisheh (methamphetamine), has surged in the past decade and represent a more s issue. As the Iron Law of prohibition has it, “the harder the enforcement, the harder the drugs”. And new reforms around cannabis and opium could disincentivise use of harder ones.

Eventually, along the legalisation process, Iran’s high number of death sentences, which is a principle side-effect of the country’s war on drugs, would be almost nullified. New resources could be invested into the development of infrastructures, creation of employment and tourism of those regions which have been paying the high price of drug use and drug trafficking, especially border regions.

What is perhaps more important in this debate is the opportunity for the political class and the public to address the phenomenon of drug use beyond the all-embracing stereotype of addiction and the addict. By doing so, there is also a chance for a nuanced policy in which recreational use – which is regardless of prohibition, rampant – is not criminalised and punished. This won’t solve all of Iran’s problems with drugs and addiction, but would potentially open up a venue for comprehensive and open-ended discussions about the objectives and means of drug control.

If successful, Iran could become a model for other countries, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, which given the current levels of trauma and distress, are having or will probably witness increasing levels of drug use.