About four 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 motivated me to gather some courage and fly to the territory known as one of the least-stable places in the world. Turned out that my visit was at a historical point in time: The Kurds were conducting a referendum to see if they wanted to continue being part of Iraq or separate into an independent Kurdish state.
After I reached the Dahuk District, I continued north to see one of the places most beloved by former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein: the picturesque village of Amadiya. The mountain-perched town, believed to be the home of the Three Wise Men who visited the baby Jesus, sits about 4,600 feet above sea level, and on a nice bright day, you can see parts of Turkey on the other side of the border. In order to reach the village, we drove on what used to be Hussein's private road and passed several vacation homes that once belonged to him, some of which the Kurds had already demolished and flattened.
The Search for Cannabis
The wild nature and magnificent expanses of Iraqi Kurdistan inspired me to smoke. For four days, I desperately tried to find something to burn, but all my attempts failed. What's the deal? I wanted to find out.
As several locals explained, the percentage of cannabis users in Kurdistan is very low, only a few percent. Strangely, there are plenty of cannabis crops in the surrounding area, but most of the goods that arrive here move on to the neighboring countries.
A few of the Kurds also cited accusations published in the past about Kurdish militias earning money from producing, dealing and smuggling various drugs in the region. One of the three main routes for smuggling heroin between Afghanistan and Europe is called the Balkan route, and it passes through southern Turkey and northern Iraq. According to American and Turkish intelligence, Kurdish militias take part in these smuggling activities.
When I arrived at the Peshmerga headquarters for the armed Kurdish forces in northern Iraq, I met with Shurvan Kirki, a senior officer in the organization. He 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 said in Kurdish. "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."
He did confirm, however, the reports that Captagon pills (an amphetamine/theophylline drug prohibited in the U.S.) and other narcotics were found on the ISIS fighters, but he said the drugs were confiscated and destroyed… or transferred to a laboratory for tests.
"Quite a few times we found different drugs and pills that ISIS fighters regularly take with them into battle," he said. "They take them to improve their levels of alertness and concentration."
After realizing that cannabis is pretty hard to find in Kurdistan, I went to the market to talk about the local cannabis scene. Although the answers were not uniform, it seems the Kurdish police take the drug issue seriously. The term "personal use" does not apply here, and even the confiscation of a small amount may lead to significant time in custody.
"The penalty is very heavy and can reach 15 to 25 years in prison," said a local merchant named Mahmood. "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 cannabis is so scarce. When I asked Mahmood about the percentage of Kurds who consume cannabis, he gave me single-digit numbers. "As for hashish, I have no idea the percentage of use in Kurdistan, though I think it's very small, maybe in the area of two or five percent," he said. "I don't really know."
Morad, who works in a neighboring spice shop, also claimed 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," he said, "but it is certain that the number of users in Kurdistan it is really low. No more than two or three percent."
Regarding the question of future legalization, the locals all seemed to be on the same page: The Kurdish people feel cannabis prohibition is not a problem.
"I don't think legal cannabis would be suitable to the culture here in Kurdistan," said a local named Nabil. "People may get offended by legalization. There are Muslims of different sects, Yazidis, Christians. Besides, most of the countries in the world ban drugs, so we should act the same."
Alcohol Shops Burnt to the Ground
The conservative view on cannabis prohibition is not surprising since alcohol consumption is also a problem in Kurdistan. Alcohol is only sold by Christians and in special stores. Estimates suggest that less than a quarter of the general population consumes alcohol, which is much lower than consumption rates in the West.
Although the sale of alcohol is permitted by law, tensions still run high over the issue. In 2011, for example, riots broke out in the Dohuk District when radical Muslim Kurds smashed windows and burned the 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," said a local named Azmy.
"There are alcohol stores here, but I oppose this idea," explained Karem from a local shawarma shop. "There is a religious problem with the sale of intoxicating drinks. We are an Islamic state, so most of the people here don't usually accept this kind of behavior."
Despite the objection that a lot of the locals expressed regarding alcohol, it is worth mentioning that Kurdistan does have a nightlife scene with dozens of nightclubs and pubs where beer and wine flow like a river.
Maybe Another Day
In Iraqi Kurdistan, I was privileged to get a chance to see an ancient people taking the first step towards international political recognition. It's a region that just overcame the horrors of ISIS to create a safer, more open and tolerant society. Although I encountered conservatism and almost an absolutist opposition to legalization, the Kurds seemed to be one of the more balanced and sane groups in the Middle East. The Kurds, who have cooperated with American, Israeli and other Western entities for decades, will hopefully get to a point in the future where their views on cannabis evolve in a more tolerant direction.
Despite the festive atmosphere that colored the streets of Kurdistan in recent weeks, this controversial autonomous region still has many more serious problems to solve. The debate on cannabis legalization may have to wait for more peaceful days….
Photo credit: Amadiya sky shot from Wikipedia; all other shots by author.