Prohibition has seriously impacted cannabis culture all over the globe for almost a century. While many antiquated anti-marijuana laws are being overturned in the West, particularly in North America, cannabis remains illegal in much of the world.
As you likely already know, laws don’t stop people from consuming marijuana. They can, however, impact how cannabis culture develops in a particular region. This is especially true in areas like the Middle East that have such a rich historical relationship with the plant.
Was Cannabis big in the Middle East back in the day? How does cannabis fit into modern Middle Eastern culture? Keep reading to learn more about what it’s like to be a stoner living near the Fertile Crescent.
What Is The Middle East?
How was cannabis used in the past in the Middle East? Before diving too far into this question, it’s important to explain our terms first. The term “Middle East” was originally coined by British colonizers in the mid to late 19th century. Its usage typically describes the predominantly Arab regions of the Levant, the Arab peninsula, and the Maghreb region in North Africa.
The exact areas described by the term have changed over the years and will vary depending on who you ask. Recently, some have begun rejecting the term “Middle East” or “Middle Eastern” for being too eurocentric.
“The ‘Middle East’, a term invented by British colonialists and popularized by the American army, is not a geographical region per se, such as South Asia or Eastern Europe. The countries included in this geopolitical, made-up region vary. Western powers decide—without us—which countries are part of the Middle East and which aren’t. Under the Bush administration, it was expanded, as if by a magic wand, to also include countries in Central Asia and Pakistan, a country that is actually in South Asia.” said Lebanese writer and filmmaker Louay Khraish.
Understand that the many countries that we categorize as “Middle Eastern'' have unique and different cultures. For example, the cultural differences between Iran, Israel, and the UAE are as vast as the United States and Mexico.
Cannabis History In The Middle East
Cannabis use and cultivation likely originated all the way back in the pre-neolithic period, somewhere in Central Asia in what is now considered to be China and Mongolia. But it didn’t take long to spread to the Arab world. Allegedly, it was first introduced to Iraq around 1200 C.E. by Persian travelers. By the end of the 13th century, hashish consumption has become quite popular in the Muslim World, inspiring such stories as The Tale of Two Hashish Eaters.
Smoking wouldn’t become popular until the proliferation of tobacco in the region sometime around the beginning of the 16th century, so during this time, hash was typically consumed orally in a mixture of nuts and honey.
While the Quran explicitly forbids alcohol, some Muslims’ interpretation of the holy book allows for hash use. Because of this, it can actually be easier to get a hold of hash than alcohol in some regions in the middle east. In fact, Europe wouldn’t get hip to hash until the 19th century when Napoleon's Troops marched through Egypt and found that hashish instead of booze was the regional intoxicant.
Is Cannabis Legal In The Middle East?
Cannabis laws in the Middle East will vary from country to country, but on the whole, they are typically rather strict. Drug smuggling charges can often carry death sentences, and even small possession charges can carry long prison sentences or whippings.
However, the enforcement of these strict laws is somewhat lax and subjective. For example, Egypt still has a booming cannabis culture where people openly smoke hash at local cafes despite the draconian punishments one could potentially receive for doing so. The same goes for Iran.
Which Regions In The Middle East Are The Most Cannabis Friendly?
Israel is the most cannabis-friendly in the middle east. It’s legal for medicinal use and partially decriminalized for recreational use. Much of the research we have into cannabis and the endocannabinoid system comes from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem located in the country.
Morocco has long been one of the world’s leading hash producers, and just recently this year, legalized cannabis for medicinal use. The country of Lebanon allows for the cultivation of cannabis, though technically, consuming it is still illegal. However, many people still use cannabis in private.
Despite the proliferation of Western tourists in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates has some of the strictest cannabis laws around, implementing four-year minimum sentences for even small amounts of cannabis. Both Syria and Saudi Arabia are other countries with extremely harsh penalties for small amounts of cannabis and definitely not places you want to get caught smoking hash.
Over the next decade, will cannabis laws in the Middle East begin to relax the way they have in other regions? Only time will tell.