Cannabis is illegal in the UAE, even for medical purposes. Industrial hemp cannot be legally grown, and just having traces of cannabis in your system can land you in prison. In spite of this, more young people are trying it (and other dangerous alternatives, like smoking red ants), and the country is exploring ways to address the changing times.
Abu Zaby (Abu Dhabi)
Table Of Contents
Cannabis laws in the United Arab Emirates (UAE)
Can you possess and use cannabis in the UAE?
It is illegal to possess or use cannabis under UAE Law No. 14 (1995). The law states that the substance cannot be “brought, imported, exported, made, extracted, separated, produced, possessed or taken”.
If caught in possession of cannabis, you may be sentenced to four years or more in prison. Additionally, you’ll be given a fine of 10,000 dirhams or more.
The drug laws are the same throughout the seven emirate states: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah and Umm al-Quwain. The upholding of the law is variable, though. For example, Dubai’s police force makes more arrests, as they are well funded and focused on preventing drugs trafficking and usage. Many foreigners are arrested for drug-taking and possession here.
Can you sell cannabis in the UAE?
You cannot legally sell or distribute cannabis in the Emirates, and punishment is more severe than for possession. Article 46 of the Anti-Narcotic Psychotropic Substances Law states that “the penalty of imprisonment for a period of not less than 10 years and not more than 15 years” shall be imposed on offenders. You will also be given a fine of “not less than 20,000 dirhams”.
The law also states that drugs trafficking can be punished with death, which in the UAE is usually carried out by firing squad. However, this is extremely rare in practice, and is usually only used in murder cases.
As part of their ‘war on drugs’, the UAE introduced new laws in 2014, giving the Ministry of Interior the right to confiscate items (including property) found to have been purchased with money generated from the sale or distribution of drugs, including cannabis.
Dr Hatem Fouad Ali, head of the UN’s regional office on drugs and crime, praised the UAE’s approach to tackling drugs trafficking. “The UAE is keen on developing its technical anti-narcotic capabilities,” he stated. “The requests from the UAE at times surpass the UN’s capacities. This prompted us to develop a long-term programme to adequately respond.”
Can you grow cannabis in the UAE?
Cannabis cultivation is illegal and is not common in the UAE. There have been some isolated cases of the plant being grown, though. For example, in 2011, eight Bangladeshi men were arrested in Umm-al-Quwain for growing cannabis in a vegetable patch. Then in 2013, a man from Asia (who was residing illegally in the country) was caught cultivating cannabis in Ras al-Khaimah.
Is CBD legal in the UAE?
CBD oil is regarded as a narcotic drug and is illegal in the UAE. This is the case even if you have a prescription from your home country and are travelling to the UAE for a holiday, for example.
Can cannabis seeds be sent to the UAE?
It is illegal to send cannabis seeds to the UAE. There have been several cases of people being arrested for smuggling seeds into Dubai. For example, in 2009, an Italian man was arrested after cannabis seeds were found attached to the lining of his bag. He was detained and interrogated for several hours, then deported and marked as a ‘persona non grata’.
Medicinal cannabis in the UAE
There is no medical cannabis programme in the UAE, and any use of the drug is illegal, regardless of whether it’s for medical purposes or not.
This tough law caused issues for a British man called Connor Clements, who was arrested in Dubai after traces of medical cannabis were found in his system. He’d been legally taking Sativex spray and CBD oil for his anxiety, and even had a medical form from John Lycett Green, founder of Medical Marijuana UK.
Despite this, Clements was sentenced to two years in Al Awir prison. “It’s terrifying,” Clements stated. “The reason I took the Sativex spray in England was for anxiety. I made sure I’d stopped using it before I flew here, knowing I would have to deal with stress on my own. But now the stress is a million times worse.”
Industrial hemp in the UAE
UAE federal law clearly states that “the cultivation of plants…/…annexed to this Law shall not be permitted.” It also highlights that it is illegal at “all stages of their growth”, including non-germinated seeds. If an owner of a plot of land discovers cannabis growing there, they have a legal responsibility to inform the public authorities, or they risk prosecution.
In special cases, the Minister of Agriculture and Fishing Resources may permit government bodies or scientific institutes to grow cannabis for scientific purposes or research.
Good to know
If you are travelling to the UAE (or currently live there), you may be interested to know the following:
The ‘war on drugs’ means that more narcotics than ever are being seized by UAE police. In 2017, seizure figures were up by 538% on the previous year. This equalled around 62 tonnes of illegal drugs.
The UAE are so passionate about eliminating cannabis and other illegal drugs use in the country, that they have launched a reward programme called “UAE Prize in Combatting Drugs”. This recognises those that demonstrate best practices in the field. Brigadier Saeed Abdullah Bin Tuwair Al Suwaidi, director-general of the Federal Anti-Narcotics General Directorate, commented: “Fighting drugs is a national duty and all government and private entities should have steps in place to fight drugs.”
Although the UAE’s stance on cannabis use is tough, steps have been made to introduce rehabilitation treatments. This indicates growing recognition that punishment isn’t always appropriate for its residents.
Culture and attitudes
The UAE is a predominantly Muslim country. As such, the use of psychoactive substances is regarded as culturally unacceptable, as some believe it is forbidden in the Quran. Cannabis use is low in all the Emirate states, with high abstinence rates for all narcotics (especially when compared to the West).
However, cannabis use is increasing among young people. A study carried out by the National Rehabilitation Centre found that many of the 17-18 year-old males were able to name alcoholic beverages and street names for drugs. Reasons for trying cannabis and other drugs included peer pressure, boredom, conflict with parents, and poor parental monitoring, among others.
Females commented that cannabis use (and other drug use) was more acceptable for males, who would be forgiven for it. Females, by contrast, ran the risk of jeopardising their personal and family reputation.
Smoking ants as an alternative to cannabis
According to a notable health official in UAE, over a third of the country’s young children (some as young as 13) have smoked red ants as a legal substitute for cannabis.
Smoking red ants creates a similar ‘high’ to cannabis, though health professionals in the country are concerned about the safety of the habit. Although no official studies have taken place, it’s believed that smoking red ants could cause serious health conditions, such as lung fibrosis, kidney failure and central nervous system damage.
Dr Wedad Maidoor, head of the Ministry of Health’s tobacco control team, comments that the only action that can be taken is to “include this practice in our new anti-smoking campaign, which is aimed at young adults and teenagers.”
Arrests for negligible quantities
Advanced devices such as this terahertz radiation scanner are in common use at Dubai International Airport
Dubai International Airport is equipped with cutting-edge technology that enables a remarkably high detection rate for illegal drugs.
For example, a device (thought to utilise an advanced technique known as terahertz spectroscopy) in use since around 2008 allows customs officials to detect microscopic quantities of banned substances on shoes, and has led to several notorious cases—such as that of Briton Keith Brown, who was arrested and jailed for four years (but released after four months) after 0.003 g of cannabis was detected on the sole of his shoe.
Passengers travelling to or through the UAE may be subject to random searches and even blood and urine tests. If more than 50 nanograms of a banned substance is found in the urine, it is sufficient grounds for an arrest for possession.
There are several cases of arrests on the basis of bloodstream or urine analysis; however, if it can be proven that consumption of the substance occurred in a different country, it may be possible to avoid prosecution. In 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement officials had no authority to prosecute drug-users if consumption occurred elsewhere.
While convictions for drug possession are common, not all arrests end in imprisonment. There are many reports of foreign tourists being held for periods of time ranging from hours to months only to be released and subsequently deported. The rulers of the individual emirates also regularly pardon large numbers of low-level drug offenders, often during holy occasions such as Ramadan as an exercise in clemency.
Focusing on rehabilitation
In the past, rehabilitation efforts in the UAE were extremely limited. Narcotics intervention in schools has been minimal, as has media intervention. Until 2001, there were only a few addiction treatment units in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Ras al-Khaima Emirates. Even these weren’t tailored to fulfil rehabilitative requirements; they were part of psychiatric hospitals.
The National Rehabilitation Centre (NRC) was established in 2002 to offer rehabilitation services and raise awareness about narcotic substances. It originally had an in-patient capacity of 86, and its out-patient service catered for up to 40 patients a day.
Now, the number of beds has increased to 169, thanks to the new purpose-built campus. The NRC is currently in talks with Abu Dhabi’s Department of Health, in a bid to extend its programme of rehabilitation clinics in primary healthcare centres across the country.
While other nations around the world may not view cannabis use as requiring rehabilitation, this marks an important step in a nation that has adopted such a tough approach to psychoactive substances.
Where does the cannabis in the UAE come from?
It’s illegal to grow cannabis in the UAE, and as a result, most cannabis comes from other countries. Herbal cannabis often comes from Africa, with hash (resin cannabis) arriving from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Occasionally, Afghanistani herbal cannabis is also available. Until recently, a large quantity of cannabis used to enter the UAE from Oman, which shares borders with five of the seven emirate states. Tighter border security upgrades have now restricted this.
In addition to purchasing cannabis is the UAE, some people also choose to visit neighbouring countries like Iran or Oman, where cannabis laws are less restrictive. This is sometimes referred to as ‘narco-tourism’.
The quality of cannabis in the UAE varies considerably, and its street value is high due to the risks involved with supplying and distributing it. Although it isn’t easy to source, drugs are sold in most of the UAE’s major cities. However, given the harsh penalties given for flouting the law, it’s inadvisable to purchase cannabis here. Undercover police operate widely within the states.