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ISIS’ Brutal Drug War Reflects Global Prohibition Norms

The international community has lambasted ISIS for its distinctive form of brutality, yet remained curiously silent on ISIS atrocities commited in the name of drug control, perhaps because they mirror so well repressive drug laws elsewhere around the world.

ISIS, the militant group which has seized control of swathes of Iraq and Syria since 2013, implements authoritarian rule over all who reside in its claimed territory. In accordance with their strict interpretation of sharia law, ISIS leaders consider all intoxicating substances to be haram, meaning they are prohibited by Islam.

The precise rules are unclear, but covert activists in the region – along with social media posts of ISIS members – have shed some light on how ISIS enforces drug prohibition in its territory, from production and trafficking to possession and use.

ISIS authorities regularly eradicate narcotic crops within their jurisdiction. A video filmed in 2014 in Akhtarin, a town in northern Syria, purports to show several ISIS members uprooting and burning dozens of large cannabis plants. The International Business Times (IBT) reported that Syrian refugees are risking their lives by growing cannabis in the Beqaa Valley – a fertile valley region in Lebanon, just a few miles from Damascus; "if [ISIS] knew we work with hashish, they would cut us”, described one teenage refugee.

Trafficking illicit drugs. which in ISIS' territory, includes alcohol and tobacco, is strictly punished, often with death. In March 2016, IBT reported that ISIS had executed five people in Syria for drug trafficking, "shot dead [after being described by ISIS as] 'spoilers on earth’". Three months later, ISIS militants publicly executed six men for selling cigarettes, according to the regional ARA News.

A still from an ISIS-made video in which men burn large quantities of cannabis

Drug use and possession are harshly punished by ISIS , and the group has tweeted photos of masked men publicly whipping "drug addicts" in Syria. ISIS’ specific punishments for using illegal drugs are not public knowledge; however, according to the IBT, people who smoke cigarettes face a minimum of 40 lashes, and alcohol drinkers face at least 60. Second-time offenders face imprisonment, or even execution – as was the case of an unfortunate ISIS official who had a cigarette put in his mouth after being beheaded in 2015.

Many governments criticise ISIS for its persecution of women and religious minorities. Yet none have openly condemned ISIS leaders for their heinous treatment of drug offenders. Such countries’ reluctance to do so is, perhaps, because they are also guilty of abusing their citizens’ rights in the name of drug policy. Large-scale crop eradication, human rights abuses, and mass executions, are not solely the result of ISIS’ tyrannical ideology. These have long-been characteristics of international drug policy.

Crop eradication, with little concern for the livelihood of poor rural farmers who grow coca or opium poppies, has been prevalent  for decades. Unlike ISIS’ approach of uprooting plants, the Colombian government has aerially fumigated millions of acres of coca-growing land with glyphosate, a chemical that is “probably carcinogenic to humans”, according to the World Health Organisation’s cancer agency.

The execution of people for drug trafficking is not unique to ISIS’ rule, either. China is estimated to have executed at least 600 people for drug offences in 2014, while the regimes of Iran and Saudi Arabia are also prolific executors of drug offenders.

Punishing people for possessing drugs is, of course, commonplace throughout much of the world. Although the use of direct violence is unusual, deprivation of liberty – by means of imprisonment or compulsory "treatment" – is widespread, often in inhumane conditions.

The brutality committed by ISIS while it adheres to international norms of drug policy exemplifies the inherently tyrannical nature of prohibition. The world’s silence towards ISIS’ drug war crimes is deafening.

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