Editors’ Note: Because reporting on cannabis is risky in Turkey, the writer of this piece asked to use initials rather than a full name for the byline. Most of the sources also requested anonymity out of fear that they could be prosecuted for their public views on cannabis.
It has always intrigued me that the Turkish word for cannabis is esrar, which can also mean “mystery.” I connect this with the fact that people never talk about cannabis culture in Turkey. In a country where people face violence, trial, and imprisonment for even legal activities, it’s natural for people to be discreet about the illegal use of cannabis.
Yet, just as in other countries, its use is widespread in Turkey despite being illegal. Maybe the fact that there are no restrictions against cannabis in Islam—while alcohol is forbidden—helped to establish a certain level of acceptance. After all, hashish culture goes far back in history in Middle Eastern societies. Actually, cannabis is quite popular in cities—especially in Istanbul and Ankara—but remains a highly taboo subject, mostly for security reasons. Its use is mostly common among people who are middle class and young.
Still, the ruling Islamic party has been serious about enforcing existing bans and introducing new ones over the last sixteen years it has governed. Its stance against all drugs, including cannabis, is strict. In 2014, the maximum prison sentence for possessing drugs increased from two to five years. Two years later, in 2016, The Ministry of Food, Agriculture, and Livestock legalized ministry-sanctioned cannabis production for scientific research and industrial purposes in nineteen Turkish cities. According to the regulation, however, authorized growers “must destroy the side shoots, leaves, and flowers of the hemp in order to prevent any cannabis production,” and they can only use fibers, seeds, and stems.
In the harsh political climate of Turkey today, advocating for cannabis isn’t on many agendas. Only one political party, the Liberal Democratic Party, has ever advocated for legalization. The party won only 0.06% of the vote in the general elections in 2015.
As a journalist from Turkey, I have met hundreds of activists, but the first time I ever heard the words “I’m a marijuana activist” was from a twenty-eight-year old rapper named Ezhel during an interview. These are words that not many people would dare to say to a Turkish media outlet. Reporters don’t ask about cannabis, and even if the subject comes up, it wouldn’t be published. There is a significant amount of censorship and self-censorship about cannabis in Turkey.
Ezhel managed to bypass the censorship restrictions on music, however, by releasing his Turkish rap album through Spotify in 2017, and it quickly went viral. The album, called Müptezhel—a play on his name and Turkish slang for “stoner”—tapped into a potent part of everyday life for young people in Turkey, with lines about life under an authoritarian regime, widespread social polarization, the effect of politics on people’s lives, and of course romance and sex, from a stoner’s eyes. Ezhel hides his political messages in his lyrics under layers of subtlety, but he is straightforward about cannabis.
This aspect of his music doesn’t get raised in articles about him. Most journalists don’t want to get Ezhel or themselves in trouble. In the end, though, the self-censorship didn’t help Ezhel. On May 23rd, following an anonymous complaint against him to the Turkish Prime Ministerial Communication Center, he was arrested for violating a controversial law about “promoting drug use” and was sent to prison pending trial. He faced a possible five- to ten-year sentence. The charges against him were based not on his spoken advocacy, but on his songs and Instagram posts, probably due to his profile picture with a cannabis leaf.
Two days before his arrest, in fact, the police chief of the Narcotics Bureau made an ominous official statement, saying: “Sharing photos of drugs is punishable by five years in prison.” Images on clothing are illegal too, the chief said, noting that even “wearing a marijuana pin is grounds for a criminal case.”
In his defense, Ezhel simply stated that he doesn’t agree with the police that he committed a crime. As he said in our interview for this piece, before he was arrested, he doesn’t believe that cannabis is a narcotic drug, nor does he think that anything to do with it should be a crime. In his songs, he describes it as derman—an old Turkish word that come from Farsi, meaning both “the remedy” and “being in good health.”
Until recently, the theory that cannabis leads to heroin addiction was commonly accepted in both religious and secular communities in Turkey, and thus it was difficult to even discuss the issue publicly. But the fact that more countries and US states have legalized cannabis is somewhat changing that perception. Before, we saw references to cannabis culture only in American rap videos. But in recent years, discussions about cannabis research, regulations, and the growing industry have reached a global audience, including in Turkey. Now, more Turkish residents differentiate between cannabis use and drug abuse.
Earlier this year, a well known pro-government Islamist columnist published an article titled “Cannabis, or the Green Treasure” arguing for the benefits of the plant—its medicinal, recreational, and industrial uses—and calling for decriminalization. And this was in a conservative newspaper. The column was unexpected and was the social media discussion of the day, but did not start a public debate. Nor was the columnist charged with promoting cannabis.
Ezhel’s arrest, however, quickly resulted in widespread public reaction. #FreeEzhel was a top trend on Twitter in Turkey for days. Musicians showed support, and several petition campaigns were immediately organized. Graffiti advocating Ezhel’s release appeared on buildings across the city overnight. Amnesty International launched a campaign for his release. And now, because of Ezhel’s case, Turkey is discussing how anti-drug policies and laws may violate the right to freedom of expression.
In our interview for this piece, Ezhel explained his activism and how it informs his music. “Rap is about explaining your life and experiences, about expressing yourself,” he told me. “Cannabis is part of my life, that’s the only reason I talk about it in my songs, among all the other things.”
He continued, “The history of cannabis culture dates back to the Ottoman Empire in Turkey. In the old days many musicians and dervishes”—a kind of Sufi mystic—“used it. That is why in Diwan poetry and folk literature there are so many references to hashish. We see how prominent poets like Kaygusuz Abdal, Baki, and Fuzuli refer to hashish. Essentially what I am trying to do is to be a continuation of this culture.”
Ezhel said he understands why cannabis activism is difficult and progress slow in Turkey. “I think our generation has become a little too pessimistic. But we can still climb up onto the rooftop and shout. At least we can break the taboo.” And living up to his promise, he seems to have has made a little crack in the cannabis taboo in Turkey.
But is Ezhel too early? Another activist, who is in her forties and who we will call Ceyda, and who has for years focused on LGBT issues, says that when it comes to cannabis she prefers to keep a low profile. “Turkey is passing through a bad time. I don’t want to say that it’s too soon to defend weed in Turkey, but I can see that we have a long path in front of us,” she told me. Still, Ceyda adds that she’s pleased with the quality of the new cannabis available in Istanbul over the last decade. “In the 90s there was almost no weed around in Istanbul,” she says. “Only very rarely. We always smoked hashish. Then in the 2000s, weed started to appear: ‘Wow,’ we said, ‘Marijuana’s here!’ We were overjoyed.”
I asked a cannabis dealer we will call Serdar, in his thirties, about the local scene in Turkey. He came from a southeastern part of Turkey to Istanbul few years ago. “In Eastern Turkey they grow the Indica variety; it’s low in quality and has a lot of seeds,”Serdar said. After cleaning out the seeds and stems, a standard 12.5 gram packet invariably turns into just five grams of something that can be smoked. Serdar says he has customers from all ages and backgrounds. Most of them are middle class and that “young people smoke the most,” he said. “Even if they don’t have a lot of money, they spare money for this.”
The Eastern Kurdish cities were known for the best local cannabis until the Turkish-Kurdish peace process ended in 2015 and armed conflict resumed shortly thereafter. Today, there is no longer any local cannabis on the market in those areas, at least in big cities. Serdar says that the cannabis in the Turkish market comes either from Albania or from other European countries, or from seeds that arrive from Europe and are grown locally. (This information is also backed up by media reports.)
Cannabis is more common in metropolitan areas, like Istanbul and Ankara, where there are different price options depending on quality. Still, in small cities or rural areas, lower quality local cannabis is usually sold for affordable prices, or else people smoke home-grown cannabis. High prices opened a gap in the market for cheaper alternatives, and in the 2010s that gap was filled by the synthetic cannabinoid called “Bonzai.” It became popular quickly, especially among young men, and it proved to be dangerous. According to the Health Minister, 236 people died from the use of drugs, most of them from the use of Bonzai, in 2014. Nowadays there are fewer headlines about Bonzai deaths, but it’s still commonly used in poor neighborhoods.
A cannabis trend has been noticed by authorities, and they have not welcomed it. In 2017, the Minister of Internal Affairs stated that the police seized 217% more cannabis than the year before. He also said that “Security forces should treat drug dealers as though they are ‘terrorists’,” and few months later he spoke on the issue again: “It’s police’s duty to break a drug dealer’s leg when he or she sees a dealer near a school. Do it and blame me. Even if it costs five, ten, twenty, years in jail—we’ll pay.” Ezhel’s arrest might be part of the anti-drug policy. But bans always call attention to the issue. More people learned about him as a result of the arrest, and they continued to listen to the songs that led to his arrest.
And in the end, that arrest didn’t hold up. After a month in prison, at his first hearing, Ezhel was acquitted and released. The judge stated that the charges against him should have been considered in the context of free artistic expression. Still, the arrest seemed to send a message—that if he talked about cannabis in his songs or social media promotion of his art again, he could again face prison.
Ezhel continued to perform his songs and quickly got a second warning, three weeks after his release. On July 11th, he was charged again for promoting cannabis with his songs. The outcome of his second trial remains to be seen. In the first hearing on November 6th, Ezhel presented his statement of defense: “I would have absolutely no intention to promote something detrimental to society. My productions are works of art. I deny the accusation.”
The next hearing has been adjourned to February 2019.
- Cannabis is rich territory for serious journalism. Legalization raises urgent questions about regulation and law, technology and taxation, science and business, criminal justice and individual liberties. It stands at the intersection of a booming billion-dollar industry and promising advances in medicine, all while remaining federally illegal.