There was an interesting item in the news here a few weeks ago about parliament approval for Greece to legalise medical marijuana. This perhaps would not be a big news item in many countries, but for Greece it represents a seismic shift in drugs policy.
Greece has historically been one of the most conservative countries in the world where drugs are concerned. Indeed, cannabis has been illegal here since 1890, and although the laws were largely ignored up to and during the Second World War, since then penalties for possession have been harsh, and only in recent years (the law was amended in 2013) have in practice been relaxed somewhat, although cannabis is still classified as a class 1 drug, alongside heroin and LSD. With the advent of the new legislation, it will now be re-categorised as a class 2 drug, opening the way for medical use. This new legislation (which has been agreed in parliament but has yet to make its way through the legislative process) will mean that farmers will be able to apply for a licence to grow cannabis crops.
There is actually a long history of cannabis use in Greece, dating back to about 460 BC, when the philosopher Democritus described a concoction known as potamaugis or potamasgis, which was a blend of wine, cannabis and myrrh that was said to cause hallucinatory, visionary states. It was introduced by the nomadic Scythian tribes that habitually traversed northern Greece and Asia Minor, and soon established itself in the Greek culture as a part of the medical cornucopia.
Although criminalised in 1890, it was still being widely grown in the Peloponnese in the early 1900s. By 1915, according to the writings of the French adventurer and author, Henry de Monfried, hashish production was the primary industry among Peloponnesian farmers; each farm would have its own stamp and vintage and there would be good and bad years, as with wine. It is also still a popular cash crop in Crete, apparently, and there are regular shoot-outs between the police and the heavily armed Cretan growers protecting their crops.
Hashish was also closely associated with Rembetiko music, sometimes known as ‘The Greek Blues’, which was a style influenced by Ottoman music and which flourished in the quayside cafés of Piraeus and Thessaloniki when the displaced refugees of Greek origin came from Turkey in the 1920s. Hookahs were the order of the day, and hashish the favoured ingredient.
Here’s a couple of tracks from the 1983 film ‘Rembetiko’:
I have a few Rembetiko CDs, including the soundtrack from this movie. The others I have are digitally remastered from the old, original recordings. It’s great music, (although perhaps an acquired taste) haunting and full of pathos.
The modern take on cannabis at a population level is very similar to elsewhere. A lot of young people smoke it, although what’s available tends to be very low grade stuff from Albania, and there is a high degree of paranoia, as the police here have a tendency to be heavy-handed when it comes to dealing with stoners they catch, even when in possession of a small amount, despite the relaxation of the laws.
When I was in Athens for a month or so in 1969, I got to know a group of young rich kids who liked a smoke. They hung around Kolonaki, an upmarket area of Athens full of chic (and needless to say, expensive) cafés and luxury goods shops, and I often went with them to their swanky apartments (provided by daddy) to smoke weed. But as usual, it was pretty low grade stuff. Where I was staying in Plaka (in those days a cheap area, particularly if you were sleeping on the flat roof of the hotel, as I was), I met a Swedish lad who had smuggled a fairly large chunk (about 250g or so, if I remember) of top quality Afghan hashish that far, but then got cold feet about taking it further, and was looking to unload it before he hit northern Europe. Ever the facilitator, I offered my services, agreed a price with him and went to see my Kolonaki friends, who were only too keen to take it off my hands (for double the price I’d agreed with the Swede, but still a terrific bargain compared to the current prices on the street). One evening a few days later, we were sitting at one of the Kolonaki cafés when my friend dashed across the road to where a car had pulled up, spoke briefly with the driver, and returned to the table with a small piece of crap Moroccan hash he’d just bought, expensively. “Why on earth did you do that?” I asked him. “You just bought a load of top grade Afghan black!”
“Ah”, he said, “The guy is a police informer, and if I hadn’t bought anything, he’d know I had another source and the cops would be breaking my door down…”
Such was the paranoia.
If the Greeks are clever, they will encourage cultivation of cannabis. The highlands of the Peloponnese have ideal conditions for growing high quality marijuana, and with the increasing acceptance of the very real medicinal benefits of CBD in countries around the world, there is a massive market out there. Not to mention the demand for high THC strains for recreational use. It could provide a lifeline to an economy which is at it’s lowest ebb ever, and inject vast sums of foreign revenue into local economies. Greece could become a world leader in production if they play their cards right.
Will the Greek government have the courage to grasp the opportunity? The political climate is right, as more countries relax their laws, and in some cases legitimise recreational use, but I think they need to be quick if they are to capitalise on the newly relaxed attitudes, or they will get left behind.
It’s a thorny issue, as cannabis has been subject to almost as much misinformed propaganda as tobacco more recently has, and once populations are indoctrinated into a particular belief system, it’s very hard to disabuse them of those beliefs, even if you place hard evidence in front of them. Their ingrained beliefs will trump fact every time. Whether that will be the case with the Greek authorities remains to be seen, but they have an opportunity here that shouldn’t be missed.