Greece has a long history of cannabis production, and prior to the prohibition era, the southern European nation also produced high-quality hashish that was exported throughout Europe. Now, some pockets of cannabis cultivation still remain, although the laws are now very harsh by European standards.
In 2013, the drug law of Greece was significantly amended and made more lenient for drug users. According to the current law, individuals found to be consuming or possessing cannabis (in amounts deemed by the courts to be for personal use) are subject to a prison sentence not exceeding five months. Greek law does not differentiate between cannabis and other illegal drugs in the punishments levied.
This custodial sentence may be suspended or waived in certain circumstances, for example if it can be argued that the incident was one-off and unlikely to re-occur. Furthermore, the incident will not be recorded on the individual’s record, as long as a similar offence is not committed within five years.
These laws are still harsh by European standards, but prior to 2013, the situation was even more dire. In 1987, an important piece of drugs legislation was passed, which brought the country in line with the international treaties (Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961; Convention on Psychotropic Substances, 1971) and furthermore made a distinction between addicts and non-addicts, arguing that the former should be treated more leniently and afforded treatment over punishment. However, punishments for casual, non-addicted users were draconian, with maximum sentences of up to five years’ imprisonment even for small amounts.
The 1987 legislation was amended several times, usually to make penalties less severe for users. However, even the 2009 amendment (the most recent prior to 2013) set the limit for personal possession at just 0.5 grams. The 2013 amendment removed the limits, and left the decision as to whether the incident was one of personal use up to the courts to decide.
Sale (termed “trafficking” in the legislation) of cannabis or any other drug is punishable by a custodial sentence of at least eight years, along with a fine of €50,000–€500,000 (up to €1,000,000 in certain circumstances).
In 1999, an amendment to the 1987 legislation reduced penalties for individuals found to be trafficking in small quantities of drugs, particularly if it could be proven that the main objective of the crime was to facilitate personal use. In such instances, a minimum term of just six months could be imposed, which could also be exchanged for a suspended sentence or treatment order. However, in practice, arguing that sale is solely to facilitate personal use can be difficult, and lengthy sentences are common even for relatively minor amounts.
Although cannabis is not classed separately from other drugs, it is not classed as a “dangerous drug” (in practice, it appears that only heroin is awarded this distinction), and thus is not subject to the absolute maximum penalties for traffic in illegal drugs, which range from ten years’ to life imprisonment.
The law of Greece states that individuals found to be cultivating cannabis are subject to a maximum of five months imprisonment, if it can be proved that the amount under cultivation was for personal use only. If the amount cannot be argued as for personal use, then the individual will be subject to the same penalties as for sale and trafficking, i.e. a custodial sentence of eight or more years, and a possible fine of €50,000–€500,000 (up to €1,000,000 in certain circumstances).
Although cultivation laws are relatively harsh in today’s Europe, cannabis is treated separately from other cultivated drugs such as opium poppy.
Despite the severity of its current laws, Greece has a long and distinguished history as a producer of fine-quality cannabis. In particular, the southern region known as the Peloponnese (of which the capital city is Kalamata) is known to have a long-preserved pool of landrace genetics that have a reputation of almost unparalleled quality.
The Kalamata landrace is a fine sativa with long, compact buds, a lemon-pine aroma and an effect that is described as “trippy” and elevated, laughter-inducing and extremely potent. It is often described as being similar to African landrace sativas in structure, aroma and effect, and has been used as the basis of several commercial indoor varieties (although as a large sativa that is primarily grown outdoors, even its crosses can be hard to control in terms of size).
As well as Kalamata, the island of Crete is renowned for its illicit mountain cannabis grows, so much so that it has been dubbed “Greece’s Colombia” – although this also owes much to the islanders’ apparent habit of taking pot-shots with high-powered rifles at any police or army helicopters that might “happen” to pass by overhead!
In 2008, three officers were shot by cannabis growers armed with AK-47s (leaving one in a critical condition with a serious head wound) during an attempted police raid on a plantation nine miles from Crete’s capital city Heraklion; just seven months previously, a similar incident occurred in which three police officers were shot by cannabis growers, this time while en route to their headquarters.
Historical texts suggest that cannabis was known to the Greeks for its medicinal properties for at least 2,500 years, and had certainly been cultivated for its fibre for much longer than this.
Herodotus, a renowned scholar and historian who lived from 484–425 BCE, observed that cannabis was cultivated for fibre, and also noted that cannabis grew wild in Thrace (a region of northern Greece).
Herodotus also famously observed Scythian nomadic horsemen burning cannabis and inhaling its fumes in order to experience its psychoactive effect, implying that cannabis was certainly also known for its intoxicating properties.
Records suggest that hashish first appeared in Greece in the early part of the 19th century, as the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire saw displaced Orthodox Greeks fleeing from Ottoman-controlled lands, bring their hashish-using traditions with them.
After the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the subsequent war between Greece and the newly-established Turkish nation (1919–1922) saw mass population exchanges of ethnic Greeks who had inhabited parts of Turkey (particularly the region known as Anatolia or Antalya) and ethnic Turks who had been settled in Greece.
The Anatolian Greeks brought their hashish-smoking traditions with them as they emigrated, as well as their musical and culinary traditions. Alongside this, returning Greek soldiers who had been fighting in Turkey brought back their own, newly-acquired habits.
However, the Greek authorities were never exactly comfortable with this state of affairs. It seems that the first official edict to be issued against hashish use was in 1890, when the Department of the Interior issued a decree prohibiting the import, sale or use of hashish as it constituted “an imminent threat to society”. Since then, drug laws have generally become more and more severe.
For an excellent, in-depth analysis of the history of cannabis and hashish in Greece, read Sociocultural and Epidemiological Aspects of Hashish Use in Greece (C. Stefanis).
Medicinal use of cannabis has been described in various historical texts dating from around 100 CE onwards. The first Greek physician to make definite mention of cannabis as a medicine was Dioscorides, who stated in his Materia Medica that “kannabis” was “a plant of much use in this life for the twisting of very strong ropes, it has leaves like to the Ash, of a bad scent (insect repellent), long stalks, empty, a round seed, which being eaten of reduces sexual activity, but being juiced when it is green is good for the pains of the ears”.
Greece currently has no medical cannabis legislation whatsoever, unlike the majority of European Union members, and it appears that has been little effort to introduce it in parliament. Despite a lively subculture of illicit cannabis use, the Greek public remains generally disapproving of drug use, and is unaware of cannabis’ potential in medicine.
In early February 2016, it was reported that twenty members of Greece’s ruling coalition SYRIZA introduced a bill calling for full legalisation of medical and pharmaceutical cannabis. However, on reading further, it appears that the bill is calling for the legalisation of only low-THC variants of cannabis, which more properly should be called industrial hemp than medical cannabis (although medicinal benefit may well be derived from its oils and resins).
The MPs that introduced the bill spoke in terms of “industrial hemp” and apparently did not make any mention of medical cannabis. In fact, they differentiated between hemp and high-THC cannabis, stating “in Greece it is not yet clear to the public that the industrial hemp has nothing to do with marijuana, as the latter contains 16 percent of the psychoactive substance THC, while hemp has only 0.2 percent”.
Greece’s regressive attitude towards cannabis is particularly highlighted when considering the example of hemp, the low-THC industrial subtype of cannabis.
In 2000, the European Commission actually complained that Greece was using its anti-cannabis laws to block the legitimate sale of hemp products, such as paper and textiles! A spokesman for the Commission stated: “Part of the problem is that, in Greek, the word cannabis refers to both the illegal drug and the plant hemp, whose use … is entirely legal”. The Commission therefore asked Greece to lift these “inappropriate restrictions”, which constituted a “barrier to free trade”.
Even more shockingly, in July 2008 a woman was violently arrested by Greek police for the “crime” of receiving a shipment of hemp protein powder at her local post office. The woman, a nutritionist and yoga instructor named Anna Korakaki, was taken to a police station and held overnight for interrogation, while her apartment was haphazardly searched.
During the subsequent investigation, testing by the Greek authorities apparently found traces of THC in the hemp powder, making it equivalent to cannabis and therefore subject to the same penalties under Greek law. Due to this, Korakaki was charged with four counts of possession, and subjected to mandatory monthly sign-ins at her local police station. As of 2016, it is not clear what the outcome of the case was, but it appears that Korakaki now lives in Belgium.
Despite all this, there are signs that Greece is beginning to shake off its repressive past and slowly implement new approaches. The aforementioned SYRIZA-backed bill to legalise industrial hemp is a positive step forward, as was the celebration of the country’s first “Cannabis Festival” in May 2015, an event that saw hundreds of cannabis supporters congregating in Athens’ Syntagma Square to advocate for full legalisation. Greece’s left-wing prime minister Alexis Tsipras has also previously stated his support for cannabis legalisation.