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Iran Considers Cannabis Legalization?

Oxford University scholar Maziyar Ghiabi has published a startling piece on Britain’s The Conversation website (reprinted in The Independent) asserting that Iran’s leaders are considering legalization of cannabis and opium.

The Islamic republic certainly lives up to its rep as a puritanical police state. Ghiabi admits that up to 70 percent of the country’s inmates are charged with drug-related offenses (out of a total prison population of some 225,000, according to the World Prison Brief).

We’ve also noted that a recent surge in executions in Iran is contributing to a global spike in use of the death penalty over the past two years.

“Drug traffickers risk harsh punishments that include the death penalty,” Ghiabi wrote. But he also informs us that Iran is now pursuing the kind of harm reduction policies that activists have been long pressing for in the U.S., including “distribution of clean needles to injecting drug users, methadone substitution programmes (also in prisons) and a vast system of addiction treatment.”

Now, it has emerged that Saeed Sefatian, an official who has been promoting such policies in the Council for the Discernment of the Expediency of the State (more simply the Expediency Council) has also been advocating legalization. The Expediency Council, established in 1987 by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, is the advisory body to Iran’s highest political authorities.

Ghiabi is clearly enthused by Sefatian’s proposals. He writes:

“If Iran were able to reform its drug policy, the prison population would drop remarkably,” he wrote. “The state would access new economic resources—through the production and selling of previously illegal drugs—which are today the turf of large criminal networks. The agricultural sector would benefit greatly from the cultivation of cannabis and poppy and the land is suitability [sic] for these crops… Given that cannabis and opium are both indigenous plants that have had a historical presence in Iran, they are also a good place to start a new indigenous approach to drug control.”

We can only hope, and it would certainly be a priceless irony if Tehran beat Washington to the legalization finish-line. But there’s plenty of reason for skepticism. Recall that courageous family members of death row drug convicts recently held protests outside the Iranian prisons where their loved ones await execution, insisting that they had received fixed trials and calling for an independent judicial review of the cases.

Unless democratic space opens in Iran for activists and civil society to take up Sefatian’s call, the political and bureaucratic inertia built up by the country’s drug war apparatus could be very tough to beat. After all, it’s been pretty damn tough to beat here in the USA, where we do have some elbow room for grassroots activism and street heat.

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