Hashish, Opium and Illegal Drugs in the Middle East

Home | Category: Drugs, Clothes and Sex in the Middle East


Afghan hashish

The Qur’an explicitly prohibits wine made from grape juice but does not mention other fermented drinks. But if one argues that wine is an analogy for all alcoholic drinks the prohibition on wine can be extended to beer, whiskey, rum, gin and all other drinks that contain alcohol. Muslims are supposed to avoid perfumes, foods and medicines with alcohol. Women are supposed to be especially careful about entering a mosque wearing perfume.

Muhammad said: "Do not drink wine; for it is the root of all evil; abstain from vice; and when pestilence shall pervade mankind, and you shall be amongst them; and cherish your children." He also said: "he is not a good Muslim who committeth adultery or getteth drunk, who stealeth, or plunderth, or who embezzeleth; beware, beware."

But that doesn’t mean there is no locally-produced alcohol. Microbreweries in the Middle East include Carakale, which opened in Jordan in the 2010s, the Taybeh Brewery in the West Bank city of Ramallah and 961 Beer in Beirut.

Some say Islamic law forbids all intoxicants, alcohol, opium, marijuana, but Muslims debate whether the ban on intoxicants, includes only alcohol, or also includes drugs such as opium, hashish, and marijuana. For millenniums people in the Middle East have drunk and eaten hashish, the resin of the marijuana plant's flowering tops. A lot of Arabs smoke hashish but they are very secretive about it. Some argue that cannabis and opium are medicines not intoxicants. One Muslim heroin addict told the New York Times, "The holy Prophet, peace be upon him, did not prohibit drugs. He prohibited intoxicants, and by that he meant only liquor." Even so, even in places where there is extreme poverty you don't see many alcoholics or drug addicts because the religions ban on alcohol and drugs.

Websites and Resources: Arabs: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Who Is an Arab? africa.upenn.edu ; Encyclopædia Britannica article britannica.com ; Arab Cultural Awareness fas.org/irp/agency/army ; Arab Cultural Center arabculturalcenter.org ; 'Face' Among the Arabs, CIA cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence ; Arab American Institute aaiusa.org/arts-and-culture ; Introduction to the Arabic Language al-bab.com/arabic-language ; Wikipedia article on the Arabic language Wikipedia ;

Sharia (Islamic Law): Oxford Dictionary of Islam oxfordislamicstudies.com ; Encyclopædia Britannica britannica.com ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Sharia by Knut S. Vikør, Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics web.archive.org ; Law by Norman Calder, Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World oxfordislamicstudies.com ; Sharia Law in the International Legal Sphere – Yale University web.archive.org ; 'Recognizing Sharia' in Britain, anthropologist John R. Bowen discusses Britain's sharia courts bostonreview.net ; "The Reward of the Omnipotent" late 19th Arabic manuscript about Sharia wdl.org


Mongol attack of the Assassin fortress at Alamut

Hashish—often simply called hash—is associated with the Middle East. It is produced from resin and trichomes taken from of female cannabis sativa and cannabis indica plants, and compressed into bricks. The drug has been smoked for more than a thousand years in the Middle East, where, in some regions, it is still popular among Muslims who are not allowed to drink alcohol. It is more popular in Europe than in the United States and is smoked there mixed with tobacco in hand-rolled cigarettes with a cardboard filter. . Hashish generally has a THC content of 7 to 20 percent. Some high quality hashish has a THC content of 28 percent. In Europe in recent years it has become common for hashish to be adulterated with various kinds of impurities such as Vaseline, beeswax or tree resin. Hashish is valued at about $4 million per ton. It is more compact than marijuana and thus preferable from a smuggler’s point a view.

Charas—which is sometimes referred to as hashish—is made by hand rubbing resin directly from the cannabis plant. It is produced primarily in India and Nepal. Hash oil is made by boiling the cannabis plant in alcohol, filtering out the solids and evaporating out the water. Hash oils have a THC content of 20 to 45 percent. Some extremely potent versions are 78 percent THC.

Hashish comes in variety of colors: black, dark green, red or golden color. Most hashish has some plant material and color of the hashish often indicates what this plant material: low-quality green from leaves and trippier gold or red from gold or red flowers and trichomes.

Hashish also varies in hardness and in texture from hard and bricklike, to soft and pliable to gooey High quality hashish is nearly 100 percent resin and is usually black and soft and can be easily molded with the fingers. All hashish can be softened by applying heat. Poor quality stuff is hard and brittle and has to be heated for some length of time to make pliable enough to easily break off.

Assassins and Hashish

The Assassins were a secretive Islamic sect of ascetic religious fanatics that carried out political murder and were active in Iran and Syria from the 11th to the 13th century. They came into being at the end of the 11th century and lasted for about a 150 years until their impregnable cliffside castle in Persia was breached by the Mongols. Some regard them as being the first terrorists and sowing the seeds of terrorist thought and tactics in the Islamic world. They called themselves “fidayeen” (“martyrs”), which is what many suicide bombers today call themselves. [Source: Pico Iyer, Smithsonian magazine, October 1986]

The Assassins (more properly known as the Hashhashin) belonged to a mystical Sufi Muslim sect and smoked hashish. They were best known for their dramatic executions of Abbasid and Seljuk political figures. So well known were the Assassins that maps during The Crusades marked the Syrian coast as the "Country of the Assassins." The English word “assassin” was derived from "hashishin," which means "taker of hashish."

Marco Polo described the Assassins as men who were drugged with hashish wine and then taken to a lush valley where all of their sexual desires were fulfilled to gain their loyalty. From then on the leader of the sect, the story goes, could order these men to carry out any command, even brutally killing themselves. Leaders of kingdoms in the Middle East hired members of the sect for great sums of money to carry out assassinations.◂

Marco Polo wrote: “Now no man was allowed to enter the Garden save those whom he intended to be his ASHISHIN. There was a Fortress at the entrance to the Garden, strong enough to resist all the world, and there was no other way to get in. He kept at his Court a number of the youths of the country, from 12 to 20 years of age, such as had a taste for soldiering, and to these he used to tell tales about Paradise, just as Mahommet had been wont to do, and they believed in him just as the Saracens believe in Mahommet. Then he would introduce them into his garden, some four, or six, or ten at a time, having first made them drink a certain potion which cast them into a deep sleep, and then causing them to be lifted and carried in. So when they awoke, they found themselves in the Garden.

Bekaa Valley

Hashish Agriculture in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon

Cannabis has been grown in the Bekaa Valley since the Ottoman era, when local pashas encouraged its cultivation. Hashish became such a fixture of the local economy it was used as currency and given away as dowries. Cannabis grows well with little work in the hot, dry climate there. One cannabis grower told National Geographic, "Hashish will grow on land that's too dry for almost anything else.” Many farmers have simply thrown some seeds in the soil, watered them a little and watched the plants grow, without fertilizers or pesticides. At harvest time buyers came to them and paid them in wads of cash.

An acre of cannabis will bring a grower about $4,000 and cost him only about $100 in production expenses. By contrast growing a field of onions can cost a farmer $500 and bring in only $100 if the farmer can find a buyer. One farmer told the Los Angeles Times, “To us, this is just a crop. I would rather plant melons, but customers are always ready to buy hashish.”

The hashish industry in the Bekaa Valley reached its peak during the 1975-90 civil war. There were lots f customers in Europe and North America at that time. The trade flourished under drug lords, defended by local militias, in the state of lawlessness. Fields were protected by gunmen. Some farmers grew opium as well as cannabis,

Sales peaked at $1.5 billion in 1988 when cannabis was grown on around 100,000 acres. Drug millionaires built gaudy villas and stashed away their earnings in foreign accounts. Ordinary farmers could afford nice cars and new houses. Local shop owners did good business.

Farmers were paid as much as $300 a kilo for top grade hashish, compared to 20 cents for a kilo of potatoes. Some farmers collected government subsidies by growing a token amount of sunflowers in the visible parts of their fields and growing cannabis behind it.

Crack Down and Return of Hashish Agriculture in Lebanon

farmer harvesting mature cannabis plants in the Bekaa Valley

In the mid 1990s, the Lebanese government launched an drug eradication program. Cannabis plants were uprooted and burned by the Syrian and Lebanese armies. Poisons and chemicals were poured on thousands of acres of cannabis fields. Drug lords were forced to sell their villas and the militias disbanded.

Programs were set up to encourage cannabis growers to raise other crops like tobacco, tomatoes, wheat, sugar beets, potatoes, and watermelon. The programs were poorly run and ran out of money not long after they were started. Funding for the main program dropped from $300 million to $4.25 million in a five year period.

Some farmers that were initially given a ton of potato seeds had the allotment suddenly cut to a half ton. Others were given American cows that failed to produce the promised amounts of milk under the weather and agricultural conditions in Lebanon. Those that successfully grew crops had difficulty finding buyers.

Farmers suffered. They didn’t make nearly the money they used to and had to find other sources of income. Some became drivers. Sons were unable to get married because they couldn’t raise the bride price. When they did get married they were often forced to live at home.

In recent years cannabis has made a come back. Farmers grow fields of cannabis shielded from view by a few meters of corn plants placed around the perimeter of the field. If the get questioned by authorities they say they are growing the plants for bird seed.

Much of the trade is controlled by the Jaffer tribes, who are heavily armed and used gun gunmen to patrol fields. Some of the growers are believed to be working with guerillas and Islamists, who need money for their operations.

The government drops leaflets from helicopters warning people not to grow cannabis. It worries that if the drug market returns to Lebanon in a big way the country could lose badly-needed foreign aid money. Even so, the government has taken little direct action to stop cannabis farming.

Kif Production in Morocco


“Kif” is a powder made up of resin glands produced by sifting cannabis buds and leaves. Hashish and kif are widely used by Moroccans. Much of the hashish is yellow in color and is called blonde. Kif is also widely consumed. The main growing area is the Rif Mountains, a range of medium-size mountains that run parallel to the Mediterranean Sea in northern Morocco.

Morocco is the “world’s leading hashish producer,” according to a report by the Geopolitical Drug Observatory. It produces about 2000 tons of hashish a year. The Rif region is the largest source of cannabis in Europe. Hashish produced here is smuggled into Spain, France and Britain and other countries. It is reportedly a business worth $3 billion a year, making it Morocco’s largest source of income and foreign exchange. According to some estimates the hashish business accounts for between one third and one half of Morocco’s total earnings.

Rif mountains filled with marijuana plantations. By one estimate 120,000 hectares of cannabis is grown behind rows of corn plants. Ketama is a town that lies at the center of the cannabis producing areas. Tangier has grown rich from the hashish trade. According to a Morocco newspaper, “many political and economic fortunes have been built on trafficking hashish and its exportation to profitable European markets.”

Even though hashish and marijuana are technically illegal in the Rif mountains and in Morocco, men line the roads in the Rif mountains selling tin foil packets of kif and hashish. Grungy characters approach tourists on the streets of Marrakesh and Tangier, whispering hashish under their breath. Many of street dealers in Barcelona, Paris and other European cities are Moroccans.

Efforts Crackdown on the Drug Business in Morocco

Efforts to crackdown on the drug trade have largely been comprised of token raids and arrests around harvest time. According to the report by the Geopolitical Drug Observatory released in the mid-1990s: “The political will to attack drug trafficking appears to be limited to announcements designed to maintain the country’s image.” According to U.S. State Department report, the Moroccan government has devoted “significant resources” to drug interdiction but large scale drug producers and traffickers operate “with virtual impunity” due to government “budgetary constraints, corruption and nearly exclusive focus of authorities on lower-level couriers.”

Rif mountains

King Hassan’s drug fighting efforts often consisted of begging the E.U. for money to develop the Rif mountain region, where most of the cannabis comes from. In the mid 1990s, he proposed spending $100 million a year on developing the area with the E.U. kicking in $500 million a year.

King Muhammad VI has done little to stop the drug trade even though he has been pressured to do so by the European Union. One grower told the Independent, that after King Muhammad VI took the throne the token raids and arrests around harvest time stopped.

On average Spanish customs officials seize around 100 tons of hashish a year, much of from intercepted boats in the Straits of Gibralter but they have trouble intercepting drugs as they are often preoccupied with stopping illegal immigrants who also arrive by boat.

In old days much of the cannabis crop of Morocco was bought by the French government. "Authorities buy up crops to destroy them,” one official told National Geographic, "This helps cut down drug traffic without completely crippling the farmers, already among the poorest in the land. For many, the drug is the only cash crop. The Rif is rugged country. Most of it is not reachable by motor road: to enforce prohibition, we would need an army."

Talks between the European Union and Morocco to crackdown on the drug trade have yielded few results. An E.U. plan to get cannabis farmers around Ketama to switch to goats was abandoned after discovering that cannabis was simply grown in other places.

Midnight Express and Hashish in Turkey

Up until the 1970s hashish was plentiful in Istanbul and parts of Anatolia. This was when Turkey was a popular travel destination with hippie travelers and Billy Hayes of “Midnight Express” fame ended up in jail for two years following his attempt to smuggle out several kilos of hashish he had purchased in Istanbul's infamous Pudding Shop. The Midnight Express was the train foreign escapees from Turkish jails took into Greece.

The Pudding Shop is still there in the 1990s and scruffy characters still whispered "hashish" under their breath to long haired tourists outside the entrance of the shop, but for the most part hashish is now difficult to find in Turkey. The scruffy characters, long-time Istanbulers say, are often in cahoots with police. After dealers sell a tourist a chunk of hash they tell the police about it. Not only do the dealers get a small referral fee for helping the police they also get their hashish back which they can sell again and again. Tourists arrested with drugs now, I have been told, are usually kicked out of the country.

French Connection and Opium and Heroin in Turkey

film poster

The source of the opium for most of the heroin that reached the United States in the 1960s was Turkey. The famous French Connection made Turkish opium into heroin at labs in Marseilles and then shipped the product to New York. In 1972 illegal opium production stopped just like that when U.S. president Richard Nixon told Turkish government officials in no uncertain terms that they had better clamp down on illegal opium smuggling if they wanted to keep receiving military aid. Most of Turkey's opium today is grown north of Antalya around Afyon and sold to European drug pharmaceutical companies.

Until the early 1970s, morphine base produced in Turkey was refined into heroin in Marseille as part of the infamous French connection. Turkey formally ended opium production on 1972 in return for $35 million in American aid intended for farmers to make up for their losses. The fabled French Connection bust in the 1960s amounted to only 110 kilo of heroin. In comparison China alone seized 40 times that amount in 1995.

Today, Turkey plays a major role in the narcotics trade, primarily as a natural route for the movement of hashish from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran to destinations in Europe. The disintegration of the Soviet Union has resulted in a loss of control over drug production in Central Asia and Afghanistan. Unrest in Azerbaijan and Georgia facilitates smuggling from the Caucasus area. Turkish police maintain that the PKK is heavily involved in the heroin trade. The use of air and sea routes for narcotics transshipment through Turkey has grown as the conflict in former Yugoslavia has disrupted the traditional overland routes through the Balkans. [Source: Library of Congress, January 1995 *]

Turkey is an important processing point for morphine base and heroin base imported into the country. Also, the Turks traditionally have grown the opium poppy for medicinal purposes. The government effectively controls the cultivation and production of opiates, paying high prices for the crop and carefully monitoring growing areas. Local drug consumption and abuse are considered minor problems, although there are some indications that heroin and cocaine use is increasing among the more affluent segments of the population. *

Drug Use in Egypt

The use of narcotics became an increasingly serious problem in Egypt during the 1980s. Some officials estimated that as many as 2 million Egyptians were users of illegal drugs as of 1989. Many of these users were students and children of wealthy parents. Many people used cocaine or heroin, while others used opium or hashish, which Egyptians have commonly smoked for centuries. According to one source, Egypt had about 250,000 heroin addicts in 1988. Police claimed that drug use was spreading at a frightening pace and that the rising cost of narcotics was causing addicts to commit crimes to obtain money for drugs. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Egypt: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

gathering opium in Egypt

A large amount of the hashish and opium sold in Egypt was produced domestically. In 1988 and 1989, however, Egyptian authorities seized large shipments of heroin and other drugs that were probably produced in Lebanon and Pakistan. An estimated 300 kilograms of heroin were sold in Egypt in 1988. In 1984 (the latest year for which data were available) an estimated 264,000 kilograms of hashish and 2,000 kilograms of opium were sold. The value of the illegal drugs sold in 1988 was estimated at US$1 billion.*

Law-enforcement authorities were more successful in arresting people who sold drugs on the streets--typically owners of kiosks where cigarettes were normally purchased--than major drug dealers, who were apparently able to buy immunity by bribes to high officials. The government had begun punishing drug violations more severely and had proposed subjecting some offenders to the death penalty. Egypt convicted about 3,500 people on charges of narcotics trafficking in 1982. About 2,500 of these individuals received sentences ranging from six months to one year; about 1,000 persons received sentences of five years or less, and 15 received life sentences at hard labor. By 1988 Egypt had imposed much stiffer penalties. A woman from Britain, for example, received a twenty-five-year sentence for smuggling a small amount of heroin into the country.*

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons and the DEA except Bekaa Harvest, Sensei Seeds

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.