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Cannabis in Iran

The following is a piece for adopted from work by citizen journalists in Iran working under the pseudonyms Arezoo Moradi and Ziba Farkhondeh. See the original piece here.

TEHRAN, Iran — Grass, cannabis, weed, pot, marijuana or whatever you want to call it, has one symbol: a green, seven-pointed cannabis leaf. This icon is well known in most countries around the world but it seems – and we emphasize that word — that in Tehran there are not that many people who are familiar with it, at least not among police officers and officials. On the streets of Tehran you can see people all over the place wearing T-shirts and manteaux (the coats used by some women instead of chadors to cover up more stylishly) with cannabis leaf designs. Selling and using grass, like so much else, is still quite illegal in Iran. (So, with a few exceptions, is alcohol.) And the police frequently put out reports about arresting domestic growers and users. The most recent one talks about the cultivation of cannabis in abandoned ruins outside Dehdasht, a town in remote and mountainous southwestern Iran. Last winter the police in the southeastern city of the Mahan reported the discovery of a large marijuana farm on private property. But if they really wanted to look, the Iranian cops could find a lot of pot flowering, symbolically as well as botanically, right here in Tehran. No, getting stoned in Iran these days does not always mean being executed by rock throwers.

Bazaar InTehran

Two years ago a translation of a Shi’a prayer book by a well-known preacher was published with cover bearing the image of cannabis leaves. And these days one can see the design on T-shirts and manteaux in the display windows of many Tehran clothing shops. On the streets you will come across many young people wearing clothes with leafy designs. If you talk to them it turns out that some of them are well aware of their choice and support marijuana use, while others say they are clueless about its meaning and have chosen the clothing only because they find the pattern attractive or trendy.

It is possible that some of the authorities, facing a plague of addiction to much more dangerous drugs, just turn a blind eye to cannabis. Of course they won’t say that publically, but as a recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime points out, the country has a “1,293 km long porous eastern border with Afghanistan – the world largest illicit opium and cannabis producer” and has become a major transit point for hard drugs. A stunning amount are consumed in Iran as well. According to to the U.N.,  “the Islamic Republic of Iran has one of the most serious addiction problems in the world,” with an estimated 1.2 million people – 2.2 percent of the population — dependent on illegal narcotics. Some 250,000 use needles for their fixes, often spreading diseases, including HIV, in the process. In 2011, Iran accounted for 80 per cent of the opium seizures in the world, and 30 percent of the heroin seizures. At the same time, the increased use of crystal meth (“shisheh”) has been “sudden and massive.”

Dripping Opium Poppy

So, a little weed? Or even a lot? Maybe not such a huge problem for the puritanical but sometime very practical mullahs. In fact, as IranWire’s Maziar Bahari points out, the country has never really had a Zero Tolerance policy when it comes to drugs. “Traditionally, older Iranian men have smoked opium in their poetry readings and backgammon gatherings,” says Bahari. “There are rumors that the Supreme Leader, an avid poetry fan, is also a user, but people close to him deny that.”

Bahari, before his arrest, incarceration and exile after the Green Revolution of 2009, produced two original mini-documentary films on drugs in Iran, one about an HIV-positive former addict trying to find a wife, the other about the Iranian government’s sometimes surprising tactics to address addiction, including a needle exchange program. A hit of good opium these days “costs a lot of money, about $5 (150,000 rials),” says Bahari. “Heroin and crystal meth are cheaper than weed and opium in Iran, and of course more potent. You can get high with $2 (60,000 rials) worth of heroin, but a good joint costs about $3.10 dollars (10,000 rials). So grass is really a young middle-class smoke of choice. Grass smokers use it as a recreational drug, and not like heroin and crystal meth users because of social and financial problems.”

There is a neighborhood in Tehran, near Khaneye Honarmandan (Artists’ House and Park complex), that young Iranians are calling Little Amsterdam for its booming, almost-out-in-the-open marijuana market. Once this sort of activity in the city was underground, but these days it is increasingly casual, freely discussed and traded.

Iranian marijuana users span a broad range of society:  young and old, men and women, educated and illiterate alike are drawn to the drug. Some try it just once or twice, others like Mohammad, are devoted stoners. His background picture on Instagram is a cannabis plant. Then there are those like 24-year-old art student Iman, who says with enthusiasm, “It’s a great high, my creativity really spikes.”

Some users warn of the downside. Amin, whom we met in the park, says that his highs tend to extend and intensify whatever he was feeling already. “God save anybody from the fear, anger and depression that it can bring about,” he says. “Once I did not sleep for 30 hours because I was fearing death.” But the government’s public education campaigns are almost all directed against opium, heroin and meth.

Solmaz, a young woman who works at a shop near the bustling marijuana market, says she isn’t into smoking pot, but knows a fair amount about dealing because of the time she spends in the area. “A buyer can have a wrapped packet in his hand within three to 30 minutes,” she says. The average price of a packet is 25,000 tomans (less than $10), and each is enough for one big joint that is enough for three people, she says. A brand called the “Afghan Thousand” is currently the most popular, due to its low price, while other brands such as “Warlock” and “Super Haze” are more expensive.

Vahid, who has been smoking grass for the past two years, believes “the more expensive it is, the better you feel.” He buys grass all over but now he patronizes the Artists’ Park more than other areas.

Khoshi (“Joy”) is the pseudonym for one of the sellers whose number is stored on Vahid’s mobile phone. He is a young man who accepts orders provided you have been introduced by a mutual acquaintance, and he delivers to your doorstep within 30 minutes.

Some sellers are active 24 hours a day. In June police shut off a stretch of Tehran’s Zamin Avenue due to complaints by local residents about marijuana dealers, and authorities searched some passing cars. But at the same time a few well-known sellers were patrolling the street in their own cars looking for customers. In fact, Ramin, a young man who lives in a high-rise along Zamin Avenue, remembers a metallic-finish Peugeot driving around until about midnight. “It was enough for the car to just drive past you,” he says. “The driver was high himself and the smell of pot smoke would hit you like a slap in the face.”

According to Ramin. greenhouse cultivation of pot is now very common. Apparently, a great deal can be harvested with only 70 flowerpots. He mentions a grower in the northern city of Amol whose financial situation has improved dramatically. "I heard from friends that his business is booming and he could afford to buy a Lexus.”

Pourya grows his pot in his apartment and on weekend nights he lays out his harvest on the table so that guests can try it. Pourya started the venture out of curiosity and now derives all his joy from the row of short and tall flowerpots lined up alongside the window. He says that his 70-square-meter apartment has become a stomping ground for friends who want to have fun for a few hours. The leftovers he sells around the park.

The anti-drug laws of the Islamic Republic ban cultivation of drug plants and impose heavy fines on those caught producing. According to Article 2 of this law the punishment for growing poppy and cannabis and producing illegal drugs ranges from a cash fine to lashes, prison sentences and even hanging.

But these threats have not been very effective. Solmaz says she has never seen police try to round up or dissuade the dealers who work around Khaneye Honarmanan. If they were to start trying now, it would be a challenge, as Tehranis are now as keen on marijuana as the citizens of Amsterdam, or maybe even Denver.