"Even if the police find only a few grams they can imprison you for more than two months without seeing a lawyer."
As the ISIS era in Iraq is officially coming to an end, I thought it would be a good time to check out the chances of legalizing Cannabis and making Iraqi Kurdistan the new Colorado of the Middle-East. Spoiler: it won’t happen…
About three months ago, the Iraqi army officially declared the defeat of the last ISIS forces in Mosul – the “capital city” of the “Islamic state” in Iraq.
The news about the ISIS defeat in Iraq aroused my curiosity, and after years of uncertainty and apprehensions, I decided to gather some courage (and a lot of optimism) to take my passport and fly to the territory of one of the least stable countries in the world.
Turns out that my visit is at a historical point in time – the Kurds were just conducting a referendum, in which they will have to decide whether they want to continue to be part of Iraq or to split up and establish an independent Kurdish state.
After we reached Dahuk district, we continued northward to see one of the areas that were most beloved by the former Iraqi ruler, Saddam Hussein – the picturesque village of Amdiya, which stands on a mountain 1,400 meters high and on a nice bright day you can see parts of Turkey at the other side of the border.
In order to reach the village, we drove on what used to be Saddam Hussein’s private road, and we passed by a number of vacation homes that belonged to him – some of which the Kurds had already demolished and flattened…
Selling Cannabis – not using?
The wild nature and magnificent expanses of Iraqi Kurdistan made me desire to smoke some sweet herb. For four days I desperately tried to find something to burn – but all my attempts failed.
Some of the locals explained to me that the percentage of cannabis use in Kurdistan is very low, only a few percent, and although there are plenty of cannabis crops in the surrounding area, most of the goods that arrive here move on to the neighboring countries.
A few of the Kurds I talked to cited accusations that had been published in the past about Kurdish militias earning money from producing, dealing and smuggling various drugs in the region.
Thus, for example, one of the three main smuggling routes of heroin from Afghanistan to Europe, called “the Balkan route”, passes through southern Turkey and northern Iraq, and according to American and Turkish intelligence organizations there are Kurdish militias taking part in these smuggling activities.
When I arrived at the “Peshmerga” headquarters, the armed Kurdish forces in northern Iraq, I met with Hilgert Harmet, a senior officer in the organization, who vehemently denied the connection of his forces to drug trafficking and prohibited goods.
“The Peshmerga do not cooperate with ISIS or Other jihadist elements in smuggling drugs and other goods in the region.” He states: “We are in a war with them on various fronts in Iraq and Syria, so the idea of transferring goods between the factions is ridiculous.”
However, he did confirm the reports of the Captagon pills and other narcotics found on the ISIS fighters, which he says were confiscated and destroyed – or transferred to laboratory tests. “Quite a few times we found different drugs and pills Which ISIS fighters take with them regularly to battle, in order to improve their level of alertness and concentration.”
No to Legalization
After realizing that a nice puff is something pretty hard to put your hands on when you’re in Kurdistan, I went to the market to talk to passersby about the local cannabis scene. Although the answers were not uniform, it seems that the Kurdish police take the drug issue seriously, the term “personal use” does not apply here, and even the confiscation of a small amount by the authorities may lead to a significant period in custody.
“The penalty is very heavy and can reach to around 15 to 25 years in prison,” Says Mahmood, a local Merchant, “Even if the police find only a few grams they can imprison you for more than two months without seeing a lawyer.”
With such a tough approach, it is no wonder that when I asked Mahmood about the percentage of Kurds who consume cannabis I received single digit numbers. “As for hashish, I have no Idea on the percentage of use in Kurdistan, though I think very little, maybe in the area of 2%-5%, I Don’t really know.” Morad from the neighboring spices shop also claims the use of cannabis in Kurdistan is close to zero. “Listen, I have nothing to do with this world at all so I really do not know what to answer, but it is certain that the number of users In Kurdistan it is really low. No more than 2%-3%.”
Regarding the question of legalization, there seems to be unanimity. From the point of view of the Kurds, there is no problem that cannabis will continue to be illegal, “I don’t think legal cannabis would be suitable to the culture here in Kurdistan, people may get offended by this law, there are Muslims of different sects, Yazidis, Christians.” says Nabil, “Besides, most of the countries in the world banned drugs, so we should act the same”.
Alcohol shops burned down
The conservative view of the locals regarding cannabis is not surprising, the truth is that alcohol is also not a big hit in Kurdistan: it is sold by Christians only in special stores, and it is estimated that less than a quarter of the general population consumes it – much lower than the percentage of consumption in the West.
And although the sale of alcohol is permitted by law, there are still tensions over the issue. In 2011, for example, riots broke out in the Dohuk district, when radical Muslim Kurds smashed windows and burned liquor stores of Christian Assyrians.
“You can access certain shops owned by Christians, where alcohol can be purchased legally, but it is not customary to drink publicly in the middle of the street,” says Azmy.
“There are alcohol stores here but I oppose this idea, religiously there is a problem with the sale of intoxicating drinks,” Karem from the shawarma shop explains, “We are an Islamic state, so most of the people here don’t usually accept this kind of behavior.
Despite the objection I hear from a lot of the locals regarding to alcohol, it is worth to mention that Kurdistan does have a nightlife scene which takes place at dozens of nightclubs and pubs, where beer and wine flow like a river.
Maybe in another day
In Iraqi Kurdistan, I was privileged to get a chance to see an ancient people making the first step towards international political recognition; a nation that has just overcome the horrors of ISIS to create a safer, more open and tolerant society.
Although I encountered conservatism and almost an absolutist opposition to the idea of legalization, I hoped that the Kurds as one of the most balanced and sane elements in the Middle East, who have been in contact and cooperated with American, Israeli, and other Western entities for decades, will get to a point in the future at a time when this issue will also be on the agenda.
It seems that despite the festive atmosphere that has colored the streets of Kurdistan in recent weeks, this controversial autonomy still has much more serious problems to solve – The debate on cannabis legalization in Kurdistan will have to continue and wait for more peaceful days.
Originally published in Weed World Magazine Issue 132