Turkey's Islamist Government Pushes for Rapid Increase in Nation's Historic Cannabis Production

Turkey is now racing to produce large quantities of cannabis, after the Islamist government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, promoted use of the plant for industrial purposes.

Although cultivation of the plant has a long history in the nation, which straddles Eastern Europe and Western Asia, production has declined rapidly for decades, in large part due to the global war on drugs led by the United States. But last week, Erdogan surprised municipal officials during a meeting by announcing the country should once again become a major cultivator of the plant, local pro-government newspaper Daily Sabah reported on Tuesday.

"We destroyed cannabis in this country because of some enemies who were disguised as friends," the Turkish president told municipal leaders, Middle East Eye reported. Erdogan also reminisced about how his mother used to knit shopping bags using fibers from cannabis plants, hailing increased cultivation of the plant as an environmentally friendly step. The president now aims to raise production of the plant dramatically, with the government citing a wide range of industrial products, from insulation to textiles and even to the automobile industry.

A man holds a placard for the legalization of marijuana as he takes part in a gathering in Bakirkoy district as part of the May Day rally in Istanbul, on May 1, 2017. Turkey is now racing to produce large quantities of cannabis, after the Islamist government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, promoted use of the plant for industrial purposes. OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

According to Daily Sabah, Turkey's historic cannabis agriculture sector has shrunk dramatically for decades. The plant was estimated to be cultivated on about 42,000 acres of land back in 1989, but that declined to just 66 acres by 2009. The amount has since increased slightly, reaching 200 acres last year for harvesting the plants seeds and fibers.

For now, the government only aims to produce cannabis with low levels (about 0.2 to 0.3 percent) of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in the plant. The cultivation will primarily focus on industrial use and research purposes. However, some Islamists are also pushing for using the plant for medicinal purposes.

Abdurrahman Dilipak, a prominent Islamist writer, has defended the use of the plant for medicine, arguing that it is only psychologically—not physically—addictive, like many other drugs.

"[The] Turkish Social Security Administration [SGK] should produce medication based on cannabis and distribute without a charge under the supervision of medical doctors," he wrote, arguing that such a move would counter criminal groups trafficking the plant, according to Middle East Eye.

In a separate article published Tuesday, Daily Sabah highlighted the plant's historical relevance to the country. The report, titled "Cannabis and Hemp in the Ottoman Empire," detailed the historic uses of cannabis and its importance to the region.

Turkish soldiers burn marijuana during an operation in the Lice district of the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Turkey, on July 8, 2013. MEHMET ENGIN/AFP/Getty Images

The renewed interest in cannabis cultivation was received with excitement in provinces across the country. Although only 19 of Turkey's 81 provinces are currently allowed to grow the plant, others have signaled they plan to be allowed to do so soon.

Osman Bilgin, the governor of the northwest Kırklareli province, expressed eagerness to begin cultivating the plant in his region. "We had always thought of the plant as having negative uses. But if you make good use of it, it's a good thing," according to Turkey's Ahval News. "We'll use [the plants] to contribute to our economy," he added.

After decades of global prohibition, cannabis legalization had a landmark year in 2018, with Canada becoming the second country in the world, and the first G7 nation, to fully legalize and regulate the plant, even allowing recreational consumption of marijuana products. In the U.S., Michigan became the 10th state to fully legalize and regulate cannabis, with more expected to follow suit in 2019. In December, Congress passed a historic Farm Bill, which greatly eased federal restrictions on cannabis cultivation to be used for industrial hemp products.