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The War On Drugs: How Egypt Was The First Country To Lead The Charge And The Last To Back Down

Many nations are starting to agree that the international war on drugs has been lost - unlike Egypt, the first country in the world to announce its war. We look into the history of the criminalisation of drugs, how Egypt pioneered the movement and how other nations are now adopting other approaches.

A country that has been following world trends left and right, Egypt has failed to pick up on the latest one of legalising or decriminalising drugs. Not only that, but it seems we were one of the first countries to start the fight against drugs and the first to attempt turning the consumption, manufacture, and trade of narcotics into a crime. It was under Napoleon's brief rule of Egypt in 1798 that cannabis was outlawed for the first time ever in Egypt - also marking the first time it was outlawed in any country in the world. We were also one of the first countries to ask the world to join in on this fight, in 1925 to be precise. 

We were one of the first countries to pursue a worldwide ban of the then legal trade of cannabis and its many derivatives, including hashish. In David Nuts' book Drugs Without the Hot Air a rather interesting passage reads, “In 1925 Egypt, backed by Turkey, proposed that cannabis be included in the Geneva International Convention on Narcotics Control. This was ostensibly on the grounds that 'chronic hashism' was causing widespread insanity, although since this wasn’t occurring in India (and still doesn’t in present-day Britain, for that matter), this was almost certainly an exaggeration of the problem. Egypt did, however, rely heavily on cotton exports, and may have been trying to protect its cotton industry from the competition posed by hemp cloth. The vote went in Egypt’s favour, despite opposition from India, and although the British delegate made a show of support for the colony by abstaining from the vote, Britain still signed the treaty.” 

Based on the notion that hashish caused insanity, Egypt managed to get cannabis internationally outlawed alongside cocaine and heroin. In reality hashish does not cause insanity at all; in fact it's been used in Egypt since the days of the Pharaohs. The reality was that farmers were choosing cannabis over cotton as a more lucrative crop to grow. Egypt, whose exports at the time depended largely on cotton, found an ingenious way to ban the hemp plant, not only locally because that wouldn’t prevent the world from utilising hemp for its industrial properties for example making paper, cloth, and rope, but on an international level by proposing the worldwide ban at the League of Nations. Basically in 1925, prior to World World II and the rise of the United States onto the world stage, Britain was one of the biggest super powers in the world and due to their special political relationship with Egypt, were benefitting from Egypt's cotton production - they stood to lose a lot, economically speaking, if hemp production increased. Anything that Egypt did was primarily dictated by Britain; such a political decision at the time was influenced heavily by them.

The use of hemp as medicine, and as an industrial raw material for the production of cloth, essential oils, paper, and rope has been documented since pre historic times, and it wasn’t until about a hundred years ago - when the first attempts to control drugs emerged - that any sign of abuse was documented. In all regards (medicinal, recreational, industrial) the plant was used by humanity throughout history, utilised the Pharaohs, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, and many more. It wasn’t until it was a threat to the international economy that it was banned. Before Egypt’s successful attempt, South Africa - which was suffering from a drug addiction epidemic - tried lobbying to include cannabis as a habit-forming drug; their proposal was circulated but never had any weight at the League of Nations (the United Nations' predecessor). It wasn’t until Egypt’s proposal in 1924, backed by the USA, that the drug was banned on an international level. An excerpt from a report by the GDPO (Global Drug Policy Observatory) reads: “Following World War I, efforts to further develop the international drug control system under the auspices of the League of Nations saw the drug become the subject of increased attention. This time it was the Egyptian delegation, with support from the United States again, employing hyperbole and hysteria rather than the available scientific evidence base to help ensure cannabis be recognised as addictive and dangerous as opium.” 

Of course cannabis (and its derivatives, mainly hashish) is in no way as dangerous or as addictive as opium (the main precursor for the production of heroin), but that was not the real reason behind Egypt’s fruitful attempt to outlaw the substance. The properties of marijuana and its derivatives are many, including intoxication, and medicinal uses. Regardless of the medicinal properties that some would argue cannabis might possess, it is not the main reason the west is legalising it now; any medicinal value that the ancients might have used cannabis for can now be covered by modern medicine. In the USA it was the medicinal debate that won over many state laws, but it was clear that it was not the main reason the drug was being legalised with several states legalising cannabis purely for recreational use following the Dutch and Uruguayan experience.

The Dutch in the 70’s - much like us now - were faced by a drug epidemic with widespread use of soft and hard core drugs in their many forms but mainly the problem was intravenous drugs and the deaths that resulted from drug overdose. It was proposed to legalise soft drugs such as marijuana and its derivative hashish, in order for the police to be able to focus on hard drugs such as cocaine, heroin, amphetamines - the so called white drugs or hard drugs - and the criminal organisations that smuggle and distribute such substances. The Dutch did not agree on legalising soft drugs (all drugs are illegal in the Netherlands); instead they agreed on decriminalising these specific types and they limited their sales to the many specialised coffee shops around the country to remove the criminal factor out of the trade, acknowledging in the process their failure in combating the trade of these substances. What happened next was a surprise to the opposers of the new Dutch policy; a decrease in the usage of soft and hard drugs.

Many countries followed the Dutch example like Portugal, Uruguay, and the United States. In the case of Portugal though it wasn’t only their stance on soft drugs that changed. Unlike the Dutch, and the Americans, the Portuguese starting 2001 had effectively abolished all laws against drug use and possession with intent of consumption, for all substances. This was done in order to tackle an on-going heroin crisis, and crimes related to drug dealers and drug addicts - open air drug markets were a common sight before that. Although not advertised (they didn’t do this to attract tourists), in Portugal, it is lawful to have in your possession a specific amount of drugs, and if you get caught repeatedly you are forced to appear in front of a panel consisting of a psychologist, social worker, and treatment advisor - the free treatment can be turned down without criminal punishment. The commissioners and addiction therapists agreed that in order to address drug addiction it must be treated as a disease, not a crime. 

Drug clinics have now popped up across Portugal and many other European countries, including the UK, where you can go with your drugs (some even supply the drugs!) and take them under the supervision of a nurse and doctor, just in case you overdose. They also supply clean syringes, cotton swabs, tourniquets, and various other paraphernalia, and at some places they even hold stocks of free toothpaste, condoms, and refreshments (tea, coffee, water and muffins). Since then, Portugal after ranking amongst the highest in European countries with regards to addiction and HIV spreading rates, saw lifetime heroin use amongst 16 - 18 year olds fall from 2.5% to 1.8% and new HIV infections in drug users fall by 17% between 1999 and 2003 (a needle exchange program was implemented since 1994 to prevent AIDS), and drug related deaths were cut by more than half. Portugal also now enjoys the lowest rates of lifetime marijuana users over 15 years old in the EU, 10%. The closest comparable figure in the US is in people over 12 years of age, 39.8%. 

What is sure is that prohibition on an international level has failed; drug use is rampant throughout the world, even in North Korea. What is more sure is that in the case of Egypt, on the ground, drugs prohibition has failed drastically, with use of hard drugs and intravenous drugs increasing exponentially throughout all social classes year after year, proving that prohibition is not the answer and ringing an alarm as to whether our nation's policies on narcotic substances are causing a negative consequence on the health of Egyptians.

I am completely against drugs and the destruction that they cause, but I am also against the vilification and criminalising of any percentage of the world's inhabitants under the false claim that drug abuse is a moral problem or mental issue, not a medical problem or physical issue. The treatment of drug addiction requires patience and willpower from both the afflicted and the treatment provider, it is a chronic illness that devours the person suffering from it throughout the entirety of his life, and can happen to anyone regardless of age, religion, or class, and to call it madness or immorality and those affected by it as crazy or criminals instead of sick is a crime in itself. 

Main image photography by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions.
Photography by Ahmed Najeeb.


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