Iran Still Hands Out Death Sentences for Cannabis

With a range that goes from practically decriminalized recreational cannabis to death sentences for selling large amounts, Iran runs the gamut when it comes to cannabis toleration, and exemplifies the issue of religious law vs penal law.

Iran has some interesting laws when it comes to cannabis, highlighting an issue that arises in different locations, of a difference in official law vs traditional religious law. In fact, in Iran’s first drug laws, cannabis wasn’t mentioned at all, and it is thought that the inclusion of it later had more to do with outside pressure than anything else. When the Penal Law of the Pahlavi was established in 1926, it made mention of cannabis under the local name ‘bang’, instituting prison sentences for having the plant, which could be anywhere from eight days to three months. It wasn’t until 1959 that it was declared a completely illegal substance, and in 1961 Iran joined the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

By 1997, the Iranian Anti-Narcotics law was put into place which made clear that according to penal law, possession could garner a person a fine of anywhere from 1-30 million rials (about $8 million), as well as 1-70 lashes. This law also instituted capital punishment for as little as 5 grams of a narcotic substance, though this was updated in 2017, with higher thresholds put in before handing down a death sentence, and life sentences for many crimes that had incurred death before.

Having said all that, the use of cannabis is actually practically decriminalized – owing back to Iranian culture before the advent of all these laws. The penal laws exist, but they don’t actually mesh with Iranian culture, or the religious law that has governed it for centuries. So cannabis is used frequently, with growing numbers, and not much looking to stop it.

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Death penalty for drugs?

Oh yeah! Much like China, Iran has been a leader in death sentences with the majority coming from drug offenses, including cannabis. With the update in drug laws in 2017, the amount of drugs needed for a death sentence was increased. Prior to 2017, all it took for capital punishment was five kilograms of opium or 30 grams of heroin. Now it requires 50 kilograms of a narcotic substance, two kilograms of heroin, or three kilograms of crystal meth.

Whether cannabis is actually removed from this grouping is hard to say. Some sources say there is no further capital punishment for cannabis possession (which doesn’t speak to other cannabis crimes), while some sources go by the definition of cannabis as a narcotic according to Iranian law, in which case it would still incur a death penalty, but at 50 kilograms rather than five. In the cases where the death sentence is no longer relevant, a life sentence prevails. It is estimated that at the time the laws changed, 5,000 lives went from being set for death to open for lesser punishments.

This change in legislation didn’t happen overnight, and had been spoken about since 2016 when it was published that the country had killed nearly 1,000 people the year before, with some human rights groups claiming as many as 1,500 killings.

So, while this update doesn’t exactly change Iran into humanitarian country of the year, it does show a measure of progress, and progress is always good. It should be noted, however, that no writing about this legislative update has made any mention of laws changing around supply and trafficking crimes. The main change in legal precedent seems to be roundly about possession.

Supply crimes

As per the standard on this planet, supply crimes are treated much more harshly than possession and use crimes. The following punishments are handed out for supply crimes in Iran:

  • 50 grams or less incurs a fine of up to four million rials ($95), and 50 lashes.
  • 50-500 grams incurs a fine of 4-50 million rials, 20-74 lashes, and a possible three years of prison time to boot.
  • 500 grams – 50 kilograms incurs a 50-200 million rials, 50-74 lashes, and 3-15 years in prison.
  • 50 kilograms or more incurs the death penalty with property taken, except for that needed by the rest of the family of the convicted, to survive.

One stipulation that can get a person out of the death penalty is that if the drugs were in fact not sold, and their weight is under 20 kilograms, the death sentence is reverted to a life sentence with 74 lashes, and the loss of all property.

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It should also be mentioned that being lashed is, in and of itself, a horrible punishment, and so incredibly detrimental to the body, that often lashing sentences are broken up over time to ensure the victim/guilty party doesn’t die. If anyone remembers back in 1994 when American Michael Fay was found guilty for some childish spray-painting in Singapore, his sentence was to be lashed four times with a rattan cane, a sentence that was duly carried out, and with enormous and very public suffering by Fay. Different instruments are used in different places which can determine the amount of lashes. Without even getting into the death penalty, the idea of lashing itself is considered barbaric, and more often than not, frowned upon in today’s society.

And now back to cannabis…

Cultivation, CBD, and Medicinal?

Cultivating cannabis in order to produce a narcotic drug is illegal in Iran, and first time offenders receive at the very least a fine, and the addition of 30-70 lashes after the first infraction. If a person is caught more than twice, the penalty goes up with a higher fine, 1-70 lashes, and a prison sentence of 2-5 years. Fourth time offenders are eligible for the death penalty!

It does get a little weird because of the wording of the law. The law states that cultivation for the express purpose of producing a drug, is illegal, but it doesn’t say anything about cultivating it for other reasons. If the plants are found to be budding with flowers that contain THC, it becomes a murkier legal situation in which the offender must prove somehow that the intention was not to produce a drug.

In Iran, CBD – or cannabidiol – is not legislated differently than the rest of the plant. Even though it is not thought of in the same way in popular culture, there is no legal basis at the moment to separate it, meaning that it is just as illegal as the rest of the plant.

There is no medicinal program in Iran, but as the use of the drug is generally tolerated, people who need it medically have room to use it as necessary, even if not legally. Industrial hemp, on the other hand, is perfectly legal to grow with low amounts of THC, and is often used to make fabrics and other supplies. The ability to grow industrial hemp does create a loophole for the use of low-THC cannabis, the same loophole that exists anywhere that industrial hemp is legal (particularly without any kind of permit) but the use of cannabis is illegal.

Religious law

A lot of the previously mentioned laws happened as merely a part of what was going on the world over, but they don’t necessarily represent the religious law that governs the region. Which does, understandably, create some legal discord by having such wide-ranging reactions. Practically decriminalized recreational cannabis is a far cry from being sentenced to death for simply having it, yet both ideas seem to permeate Iranian culture, one based on more recent penal law, and one based on historical Islamic religious law. According to Islamic religious law, there is very little mention of cannabis at all, and the attitude is rather flexible. The majority of religious scholars of that region hold that while cannabis should be regulated to some degree, that it is not forbidden by Islamic law.

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To give an idea of how Iran assimilates the two different types of laws, and to show the prevalence of religious law in society (something that places like the US have ruled out by a separation of church and State), the following excerpt explains the relationship:

“The Islamic Republic is a political machine that combines secular institutions of government – such as anti-narcotics agencies – with religious forms of political formulation. The latter is best exemplified in the fact that Islam and Islamic law, as developed through the Shia Ja’fari School, are the base of the Constitution as written in 1980 (Schirazi, 1998). This means that laws and policies adopted by the state have to go through a process of evaluation that ensures their religious validity. When parliament approves a law, the text goes through an evaluation from an ad hoc body named the Guardian Council, which acts as a Constitutional Court. The Guardian Council assesses the laws based on the accordance with Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). If the law is considered against Islamic law, it is rejected and sent back to parliament.”

Islamic religious leaders do condemn drug trafficking and drug addiction, but have been known to support non-violent means like needle exchanges, methadone maintenance, and safe injection rooms. All of which are a far cry from the general treatment handed down by penal law.

Conclusion

Iran is a country that straddles polar opposites when it comes to the governance and punishment for cannabis. On one hand having a long tradition that incorporates it, and a religious law that looks to regulate it without banishing it; and on the other hand a penal system that still hands out death sentences for it….there’s an obvious disconnect, and one that can be seen in a lot of countries that were essentially pressured into illegalizing cannabis.

It seems like Iran is slowly turning the tides of its cannabis illegalization. It might take some time, but with a strong cultural tradition to support it, a lot of it being smoked, and changing regulation to lighten punishment for offenses, Iran is making its way to being a much more cannabis-friendly country.

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