The Weird Link Between Marijuana and Radical Islamists in Syria

As if the civil war in Syria that’s been raging since 2011 hasn’t caused enough violence, death and destruction, it appears that the militant Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) could be launching a war on drugs. ISIS released a video on YouTube showing a dozen armed men in a field full of marijuana plants. After denouncing the evils of growing and using drugs, the plants were uprooted, put in a pile and burned. 

In areas under ISIS control it has been reported that the group has banned the use of all psychoactive substances, even legal ones like cigarettes. It’s estimated that 60 percent of men and 20 percent of women in Syria smoke tobacco in the form of cigarettes or narghiles (water pipes).  

Farmers in the northern part of Syria have developed a prosperous marijuana industry despite the drug being illegal. Now they have become targets for Islamic fighters like ISIS who consider drugs to be against Islamic law. But why would farmers risk their livelihoods and possibly their lives to grow an illicit crop? In a word: war. Relentless aerial bombardment, de-industrialization, economic collapse and the internal displacement of hundreds of thousands of people have shattered much of the legal agricultural economy of Syria. A recent report from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency said, “Even if the conflict ceased now and GDP grew at an average rate of five per cent each year, it is estimated that it would take the Syrian economy 30 years to return to the economic level of 2010.” 

Jabal al-Zawiya in Idlib is a mountainous area near the Turkish border. Before the civil war, it was celebrated for growing olives but now cannabis is the main cash crop. Farmers say the plant is easy to grow and pays better than olives. Ahmad, a 31-year-old pot cultivator, explained, "We have no land, no trade, nothing. If it wasn't for smuggling [cannabis], we'd starve to death." 

But cultivating a crop that has been forbidden by Islamic law is costly and dangerous. Marijuana farmers have to pay local factions to protect their farms from raids and to avoid arrest. Most of the marijuana is smuggled by trucks into Turkey and then shipped to markets throughout the region. 

Countries in the Middle East have a long tradition of recreational use of cannabis and hashish. They also have some of the most draconian drug laws that apply to all psychoactive substances and no distinction is made between “hard” and “soft” drugs. Corporeal punishment, most frequently whippings, and the death penalty are common throughout the region. 

Iraq is now a major smuggling route for hashish and opiates arriving from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Those caught trafficking drugs can face life imprisonment and the death penalty. The Iraqi government applies the death penalty for drug trafficking if it is shown that the offenses were committed to fund or aid the insurgency.

Iran leads the world in executions per capita and drug offenses are far and away the most common reason for a death penalty sentence. The death penalty is mandatory for trafficking or possessing more than 30 grams of an illegal substance. Iran shares a border with Afghanistan, the world’s leading producer of illicit heroin and opium. For over a decade, the Iranian government has been waging a brutal war on Afghan drug traffickers in a futile attempt to stem the flow of opiates destined for domestic consumption and for European markets.

The organization Iran Human Rights reports that last year the country executed 331 people on drug-related charges. Many of the convicted are hung in public. 

Under Saudi Arabia’s strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia law, drug trafficking is punishable by death. Just this month, three Syrians and an Iranian convicted of trafficking amphetamines were beheaded by sword. The beheading of a Pakistani man for trafficking heroin brought the total of those executed this year to 46. Human Rights Watch reports that eight of those executed were for nonviolent offenses like drug trafficking and “sorcery.”

Watch the video of ISIS burning marijuana crops:



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