In October 2017, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the liberation of the city of Raqqa, which until recently was the capital of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria. With the one-year anniversary of the Raqqa liberation just three months away, PRØHBTD visited Syria to learn more about the people and talk with them about cannabis. As expected, some people were less than thrilled with our questions.
Syria won’t follow Canada’s lead anytime soon
Our first stop was Qamishli, a city largely controlled by the Kurdish forces, but the Syrian army still holds a number of neighborhoods and strategic buildings such as the city airport and hospital. In the offices of the Democratic Union Party—widely considered the leading political force in northern Syria’s autonomous region—I met with party chairwoman Asya Abdullah to ask her if cannabis could become legal in Syria in the near future.
“I understand that there are a few Western countries that have made a decision that cannabis consumption is now legal,” Abdullah replied, “but every country has laws that are appropriate for its local population. I’m not the one you should address for these questions, but it seems to me that such a move will not be accepted here by most of the residents.”
Chairwoman Abdulla was clearly not interested in addressing the issue and preferred to give an evasive answer, so I headed to the local law enforcement authorities to ask them their thoughts on the hashish issue. Hanna Sarkis (photo below) is the spokesman for the Sutoro, one of the police militias operating in the area, and he agreed to a meeting.
From hashish to heroin
Although we arranged the meeting in coordination with the police, it seems Sarkis was not prepared for the questions I asked. He requested that we stop the interview shortly after we started. Only after we turned off the camera did he agree to address the issue of legalization in Syria.
“If we approve the hashish, people might continue to heroin and cocaine,” said Sarkis, which suggests the debunked gateway drug theory is still a global propaganda success. “If we allow people to commit minor offenses, they will fall into much more serious offenses.”
So those holding official positions in northern Syria aren’t exactly pro-legalization. What about the local press?
From Qamishli, I traveled to the city of Kobani to meet with Mustafa Ali, a young journalist who had covered the cannabis scene that once flourished in the area. To my disappointment, I discovered that he too was stuck in a somewhat primitive concept.
“When you talk about cannabis in Syria, we have to get to the root, to understand where the problem starts,” he explained. “The cannabis crops in northern Syria did not start as an original initiative of the local residents. These were the Turks who smuggled cannabis seeds to Syria and encouraged the locals to grow and distribute the drug. They have a clear purpose, and [it] is to corrupt our society.”
Kobani sits directly on the border with Turkey, and Ali’s accusation recalls the dark era of Harry Anslinger and his claim that Mexicans were trying to corrupt American society by bringing cannabis across the border.
Knowing that even the press still seems to support prohibition, I accepted the fact that Syria won’t even legalize medical cannabis anytime soon, so I moved on to one of the most cannabis-unfriendly cities in the world.
An Islamic State prison
After several hours of travel, dozens of roadblocks and acquiring lots of special permits from local security forces, I finally arrived at Raqqa, the city that until recently was the capital of ISIL in Syria. For months, this city was under aerial bombardment that certainly left its mark. Wherever I looked, I saw only destruction and ruins.
I started in the city’s main public space, Heaven’s Square, which was nicknamed Hell Square after ISIL’s arrival. The militants held the public beheadings here and then hung the severed heads on the fence around the square to sow fear and terror among the locals.
With an iron fist that made Jeff Sessions look like a dab-happy hippie, the Islamic State strongly opposed cannabis, alcohol and cigarettes. Even those caught with a small amount of hashish could end up in the local soccer stadium that ISIL converted into a prison with various torture rooms. A tour of the improvised prison revealed countless bullets on the floor, writings and drawings left behind by prisoners (including ISIL fighters thrown into jail for committing a crime), and a general atmosphere of darkness and depression. This was how Islamic State prohibitionists treated cannabis consumers.
For many, cannabis embodies a larger fight for freedom, personal responsibility and putting the democratic will ahead of the moral minority. But like the situation PRØHBTD experienced in northern Iraq, views on cannabis prohibition are unlikely to change soon despite the fall of the Islamic State. For many, the goal right now is just to stay alive and to rebuild their communities.