Marijuana plants in Ghalat, Iran. All photos sent by our Observer. 

A village in southwestern Iran has recently gained quite a reputation for its vibrant marijuana trade, which has earned it the nickname “Little Amsterdam”. But residents of Ghalat, which is about 40 kilometres from Shiraz, aren’t just reaping in the profits. This small village is now suffering from insecurity and violent clashes with the police.

The Islamic Republic is better known for heroin and meth, but marijuana is now on the rise, too. It is illegal in Iran; legally, it is considered the equivalent of drugs like opium. Possession of any amount will earn you at least 50 whip lashes and thousands of euros in fines. Beyond 500 grams, culprits risk up to five years in prison, and beyond five kilograms, not only do they risk ten-year prison terms, they also risk the death penalty for repeat offenses.

A marijuana plantation in Ghalat.

“Customers started coming in from all over the country to buy marijuana”

Jamshid (not his real name) is a student who lives in Ghalat.

For a long time our village was known for its citrus plantations and vineyards. Most of the village’s revenue came from wine production. Wine is illegal in Iran, but having vines is not; grapes were turned into wine behind closed doors.

However, in the last decade, the region suffered serious droughts. Wine production became very difficult. But a few years ago, a few farmers started planting marijuana after realising how easy it was to grow, and how lucrative it could be. Suddenly, it became an epidemic: all the young farmers started copying each other. It’s easy to grow here, because we’re in a mountainous area and there are lots of woods to hide the plants in.

A marijuana plantation in Ghalat.

Ghalat quickly became famous all over Iran, no longer for wine, but for cannabis. Customers started coming in from all over the country to buy it. Even small marijuana farmers from other regions started flooding in, because they knew they could find customers easily here. Marijuana that comes in from outside Iran sells for about 5,500 euros per kilogram, but marijuana from our village sells for only about 3,000 euros per kilogram.
“The police take bribes from dealers to take out rivals”

The marijuana trade has brought our village daily problems. There are fights between dealers, which often get violent. The police’s reaction to all this has also fostered resentment between residents. It’s clear to everyone here that the police take bribes, because they’ll make arrests and, strangely, those arrested will often be quickly let free. Many people say that police take bribes from dealers to take out rivals. [Editor’s Note: FRANCE 24 cannot independently verify these claims of bribery. We have contacted the local police for comment, but have not received a reply.]

There are also frequent clashes between locals and the authorities. Not long ago, on October 27, two local youths were smoking marijuana outside. Local basijis [volunteer members of a paramilitary organisation that polices morals] confronted them and sprayed them with pepper spray. A fight broke out, and other villagers came to defend the youths. The basiji called Shiraz police for backup, and the incident descended into a riot. The basiji shot and injured two youths. Later in the day, villagers went to protest outside Shiraz’s police station; there, clashes again broke out. In the end, 12 Ghalat residents were arrested. The basiji who shot the youths have run away from the village, no doubt fearing retribution.

One of the injured youths.

I’m tired of the police roadblocks, the arrests, the violence… I miss the peaceful days when people made wine. I understand that the farmers needed to find a way to survive, but I don’t think marijuana was the right choice. I wish the authorities would have helped address the drought problem by helping them replant new crops – a bit like a few decades ago, when they destroyed poppy fields used for opium but helped farmers plant saffron instead. Maybe they could still do something like this. But for the moment, it seems we’re stuck between the dealers on one side and the police on the other.

The grower standing in the middle of this marijuana plantation was blurred in red by our Observer to avoid recognition.