Cannabis has a long history of use in Iran. Before the advent of Islam in the 7th century CE, the most popular religion in Iran was Zoroastrianism. In the Avesta, which are the sacred texts of Zoroastrians, in a list of various people (Fravaši Yašt v. 124), someone is called Pouru-baṅha (‘possessor of much cannabis’). This is one of the references that seem to indicate the ancient use of cannabis in pre-Islamic Iran.
In Islam, the use of alcohol is clearly prohibited in the Koran. However, no mention is made of cannabis, so it has never been entirely certain to the Shi’a religious scholars of Iran whether or not, according to religious law, cannabis is permitted or not permitted in Islam. As in many other jurisdictions, the issue is complicated by the fact that cannabis also has a long history of medical use in Iran. For example, in the Canon of Medicine (al-Qānūn fī al-Ṭibb), by the Persian philosopher and physician Avicenna (Ibn Sina) (980–1037), which became a standard text in many universities, cannabis is prescribed for headache. Several other Persian medical authorities also similarly prescribe cannabis (Ghiabi et al. 2018:122; Gorji and Ghadiri 2002).
Over the last 1,500 years or so, the popular use of cannabis has periodically waxed and waned in Iran, due to changing political, social, and religious climates. In the last few years, there has once more been a revival in cannabis culture in Iran and consequent legal discussion of its use.
The Global Spread of Cannabis Culture, 1200–1550 CE
Historically, cannabis as an inebriant—in distinction from use as a medicine-first noticeably appears in the Muslim world in the 11th century, when the Seljuks conquered Baghdad (Nahas 1982:815).
As discussed in another blog (Radical Sūfīs and Cannabis Culture in South Asia), a major influence in the global spread of cannabis culture, all the way from Europe, through North Africa, to India and Western China, from the 12th century onwards, was a movement of radical Sūfīs, which had several sub-sects, known variously as Qalandar, Haydarī or Malang, among other designations.
Jamal al-Din Sāvī and Qutb al-Din Haydar
One of the two most significant people in the development of the Qalandar movement was an Iranian, Jamal al-Din Sāvī (d. 1232), who was born in Sāvah, south of Tehran. Sāvī, who had been initiated into Sūfism, was inspired while he was studying in Damascus by Jalāl Darguzīnī, an ascetic who lived naked but for leaves covering his genitals. Darguzīnī ate only leaves and weeds, used to sit motionless for long periods of time, sometimes in graveyards, and regularly consumed bhāṅg.
Sāvī reacted against institutional Sufism and took to the radical path of the Qalandars, sometimes living in a tree, and became known as a “walking library” owing to his exceptional knowledge of religious and legal texts. He believed that he had discovered the secret of the divine revelation in cannabis intoxication (Karamustafa 2006:40ff.). The excessive use of cannabis, which was eaten, not smoked, was one of the hallmarks of the Qalandars.
The other important figure in the development of the Qalandar movement was another Iranian, Qutb al-Din Haydar (d. 1222) of Zāvah (modern Turbat-i Haydariyah), who founded the Haydarī Qalandars, whose centre was in Nishapur, in north-east Iran.
The Influence of the Radical Qalandars
Qalandar ascetics who followed Sāvī, Haydar, and other radical leaders, lived entirely outside the law (be-shar); they completely renounced wealth and property and were supposed to remain entirely celibate. They wished to rely only on God (tawakkul). Initiation into most sub-sects, particularly by the followers of al-Sāvī, entailed shaving the hair from four parts of the body: the hair, beard, mustache, and eyebrows (char zarb); however, the followers of al-Haydar (the Haydarī) retained long mustaches. In conventional Islam, the loss of one’s hair and beard symbolized a loss of social status.
Qalandars often travelled in large bands, of up to a few hundred, and were known for begging aggressively and anti-social behaviour. They did not go to mosques nor did they regularly pray, but would utter mystic formulae, such as “God is the Creator”. At night they would often dance, sing and bang tambourines or drums around fires. Some would walk on the hot coals of the fire; others ate snakes; some would pierce their bodies with swords or sharp, iron rods.
The Qalandars were accused by many conventional Muslims of being entirely degenerate, and there was concern over the seduction of the youth into the movement. Although Qalandars occasionally ended up as advisors to various rulers, others, such as the Mongol Hülagü Khan who conquered large parts of Asia in the 13th century, sentenced many Qalandars to death; some had their nose and ears chopped off (Karamustafa 2006:56).
Such was the influence of the Qalandars on Iranian culture that in the Ḥadīth (‘Commentary’) literature of Islam, it is implied that hashish (cannabis) came originally from Iran (Matthee 2005:109).
Cannabis use in the Late Medieval Period
In the late medieval period, the influence of the Qalandars declined in Iran. Between 1500 and 1900 CE, cannabis use was occasionally noticed by travellers and commentators, but it was opium that was truly the drug of the masses (Matthee 2005:115). Occasional mention is also made of concoctions containing cannabis, opium, and other intoxicants, such as nux vomica (strychnine tree).
There is very little information available about the use of cannabis during the period of the Safavid dynasty in Iran (1501–1736), but it seems that it had a bad reputation and was prohibited in Islamic manuals of jurisprudence (fiqh). In his autobiography (1522–1523), Shah Tahmasb specifically mentions zumurd-i sudah (‘pulverized emerald’), which is cannabis, as one of the illicit euphorics. Bhāṅg shops were ordered to close. Another ban on cannabis (chars-furushi), as being un-Islamic, was issued by Shah Sultan Husayn in 1694, but like previous prohibitions, it did not have much effect on curtailing its use in Iran (Matthee 2005:97–116).
Cannabis Prohibition in the 20th Century
In the modern era, in line with a general global trend, in the first Penal Law of the Pahlavi era in 1926, public intoxication by opium, bhāṅg or caras (cannabis) was prohibited. Subsequently, in 1955 opium was completely prohibited, as was cannabis in 1959. This legislation paved the way for Iran’s adoption of the global UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961. Iran’s drug laws, approved by the Council of the Expediency of the State in 1988, and reiterated in Iran’s Anti-Narcotics laws of 1997, include the death penalty as a possible sanction for cultivating cannabis or supplying more than 5 kgs (Veldman 2021).
However, despite the prohibitions, eradicating cannabis proved to be practically impossible, as the spontaneous flowering of cannabis is not a rare sight across the Iranian plateau (Ghiabi et al. 2018:123–124). The situation is also complicated by the fact that hemp is widely grown in Iran for practical purposes, such as for rope or cloth, particularly around the province of Tehran, in adjacent Sāva, Qāsemābād-e Qandīšāh in Sharīār, and Shiraz (Gnoli 1988:690). Hemp seeds and oil are regularly used in Persian cuisine (Veldman 2021).
When I first visited Tehran in 1977, before the Islamic revolution in 1978, two-meter-high cannabis plants were growing along several of the streets of the city; some people were openly smoking hashish in cafes. However, the atmosphere was extremely paranoid and the police were noticeably hanging around. Getting caught meant possibly going to jail.
Cannabis Revival in Iran
Despite the law, by the 2000s cannabis culture revived again in Iran, particularly among the wealthier urban youth. Hashish is now being imported from Afghanistan and Pakistan and some people have started growing weed on their terraces and balconies. Cannabis is in common use at urban dinner parties in Tehran, in the ski resorts and restaurants of Dizin and Shemshak, and occasionally in parks (Erdbrink 2016).
Several unique strains of cannabis grow in Iran; they are landrace varieties of the Afghanica indica sub-species, generally being short, wide-leaf, high THC varieties (seedfinder.eu 2021; tltseeds.com 2021). Although hashish is imported into Iran from Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is a small domestic industry that produces very high-quality hashish, of which there are two main qualities (‘superior’ and ‘horse-hoof’), resulting from different methods of production. Hashish oil is also manufactured in Iran (Gnoli 1988:691).
In practice, possession of small amounts of cannabis is now almost decriminalised in Iran and prosecutions are rare. However, dealing can still warrant a death sentence (Friedman 2020: Veldman 2021; We Be High 2021).
Recent Legal Debates about Cannabis in Iran
These recent developments have led to discussions among Iranian drugs policymakers about the reform of the law. In 2015, the highly influential Expediency Council considered re-regulating cannabis and opium, considering age, medical use, and supervised outlets; though nothing has yet changed (Ghiabi et al. 2018:124).
A particular feature of the Iranian legal system, embedded in the country’s 1980 Constitution, is that any new law decided by the government has then to be evaluated and approved by
Guardian Council, which is a Shi’a religious council of the Ja’fari school of religious law, to see if the law is in accord with Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh).
Ghiabi et al. (2018) presented a questionnaire to eight leading Iranian legal clerics (marja‘s) for their opinion on the use of cannabis. The results were interesting, as most of the clerics expressed pragmatic opinions on the issue.
Firstly, the majority of the clerics decreed that cannabis is not specifically haram, in other words not totally forbidden.
Secondly, cannabis may be used for medical purposes, if efficacy is demonstrated through scientific and medical research, but should only be administered with the strong supervision of the state.
Thirdly, cannabis may be cultivated for pharmaceutical purposes.
Fourthly, if the cannabis grown has only high CBD and low THC, then it is not of religious concern.
Six out of eight of the scholars consulted nevertheless maintained that cannabis is not a fully permitted substance and its legality should be subject to conditions and limits. Significantly, in 2016, in the ongoing debate about cannabis legalization in Iran, it was argued that the Iranian government should take control of the drug market, to break the link between consumers and drug-trafficking networks.
Were that to happen, there is a possibility that Iran may permit cultivation and distribution of cannabis under some form of state supervision (Ghiabi et al. 2018:126), which would make Iran the first country in the Muslim world to regulate the recreational use of cannabis.
Avesta: The Religious Books of the Parsees (from Professor Spiegel’s German Translation of the Original Manuscripts, in three Volumes) (trans. Arthur Henry Bleeck) (2005) . Elibron/[Hertford: Muncherjee Hormusjee Cama].
Erdbrink, Thomas (2016). ‘Marijuana Use Rises in Iran, with Little Interference’. New York Times, June 25th. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/26/world/middleeast/marijuana-use-rises-in-iran-with-little-interference.html
Friedman, Sarah (2020). ‘Iran Still Hands Out Death Sentences For Cannabis’. CBD Testers, 27th August. https://cbdtesters.co/2020/08/27/iran-still-hands-out-death-sentences-for-cannabis/
Ghiabi, Maziyar, Masoomeh Maarefand, Hamed Bahari, Zoreh Alavi (2018). ‘Islam and cannabis: Legalization and religious debate in Iran’. International Journal of Drug Policy, vol. 56, pp. 121–127.
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Gorji, Ali, and Maryam Khalegi Ghadiri (2002). ‘History of headache in medieval Persian medicine’. The Lancet, vol. 1, issue 8 (1st December), pp. 510–515. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/laneur/article/PIIS1474-4422(02)00226-0/references?code=lancet-site
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Nahas, G. (1982). ‘Hashish in Islam, 9th to 18th Century’. Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, vol. 68, no. 9, pp. 814–831.
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