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Afghanistan: Iran And Other Neighbors Face Growing Drug Problems

By Charles Recknagel and Azam Gorgin

Today is the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, and in Iran, officials marked it overnight by burning up tons of narcotics. RFE/RL's Charles Recknagel looks at how Iran and other states in the region are dealing with a mounting drug addiction problem.

Prague, 26 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Iran marked the UN's anti-drug day by igniting a bonfire yesterday evening (Sunday) to incinerate some 25 tons of narcotics confiscated from traffickers.

Most of the smuggled narcotics originated in Afghanistan, which today produces three times more opium base than all the other areas of the world combined.

The opium base is refined into crude opium and heroin and smuggled through Iran, Pakistan, and Central Asia to markets in the Arab Gulf states and Europe.

But in all the transit countries, some of the flood of narcotics also spills into local markets.

The result is a surplus of drugs at rock-bottom prices in all of Afghanistan's neighboring states. And with it has come a rapid growth in the number of addicts.

UN drug experts put the number of addicts in Iran today at near to 1.25 million, up from 1 million five years ago. For Pakistan, the number is nearly 2 million.

Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan -- lying on the smugglers' principal routes north from Afghanistan -- have drug-user populations whose numbers are not officially estimated. But health workers say there, too, the numbers are clearly large and growing.

Many of these countries now face the challenge of coping with addiction to narcotics for the first time on a mass scale. And, so far, their responses have varied from efforts to raise public awareness of the problem to denial that any such problem exists.

The Islamic Republic, which in the past has considered an addict a criminal, in recent years has been re-thinking its policy and stressing prevention and treatment instead.

Signs of the change in Iran are a de-emphasis of sweeps for addicts, and a rapid growth of public and private treatment clinics advertised in the media. Addicts can seek treatment programs voluntarily or be referred by courts. And anonymous hot-lines have been set up for advice over the telephone.

RFE/RL spoke with Shahriar Shams, a journalist who follows drug issues for the newspaper "Hamshahri" in Iran. He told the Persian Service's Golnaz Esfandiari that local authorities are issuing public information brochures to families to raise awareness among children of the dangers of narcotics.

At the same time, Tehran has plans to rehabilitate addicts within its prison population. Shams says:

"There are going to be vocational and trade teaching camps for the addicted prisoners and I think, I am not sure, the first camp is going to be in East Azerbaijan province. If this succeeds, then they would transfer all addicted prisoners to these camps. We have to see how these camps will function. In the past, we used to have these camps, but they were closed down."

Experts believe the camps will apply a treatment regimen of discipline and exercise. Official estimates say that of the 150,000 people held in Iranian prisons, 70 percent are there for drug trafficking or use.

In Iran, cheap Afghan heroin is making fast gains on the traditional narcotic of choice among addicts -- opium. Shams says:

"Once there was a fight against opium addiction in Iran, then heroin replaced opium because it was cheaper, easier to use and also more difficult to cure. Other elements are unemployment, a youthful population, and lack of educational systems for the families."

Shams also says Tehran's own efforts to battle trafficking from Afghanistan may be contributing to the domestic problem. The drug battle -- in which some 3,000 Iranian soldiers and police have died over the last decade -- includes building physical obstacles like trenches to block the smugglers' easiest routes into the country from the east. He says that has forced smugglers to break up what were once large shipments, moving westward intact, into small shipments. Those smaller shipments are more easily diverted into the local market.

"[Iran's biggest problem] is neighboring a county such as Afghanistan, which is the biggest narcotic-producing country in the world. When narcotics are in transit through Iran to European countries, there will be some fallouts. Also, since Iran has developed some obstacles on its eastern border, it has introduced a change in the transit patterns. Narcotics are not being carried on big trucks because the borders are closed, hence they have to go through tight, rural roads. So, the narcotics are carried in more limited quantities, and there is more fallout in Iran."

UN drug control officials say that almost 40 percent of the drugs that cross the border stay in Iran, where the street price of heroin is $3-$4 a gram, or about 100 times cheaper than what it costs in Europe.

Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan are under similar pressure. But each is dealing with the problems of drug addiction in different ways.

The Uzbek government in Tashkent says it has no heroin addiction problem and makes no statistics available. But correspondents say markets are widespread where heroin is available at $10 to $25 a gram, depending on quality. And health workers say the rate of addiction is growing rapidly among the young.

Uzbekistan maintains special clinics where addicts can register voluntarily for treatment, but there are disincentives to do so. Patients' names are kept on a registry as socially unstable, making them prime suspects in cases of crime. And treatment in the clinics is limited by lack of medicines.

Turkmenistan also has no statistics for drug use. But one measure of its problem is a decree by President Saparmurat Niyazov in 1993 exempting from punishment anyone carrying less than five grams of opium. Correspondents say health workers believe as many as half of the country's young people may be casual users of some form of drug -- ranging from hashish to heroin.

Turkmenistan has no special treatment centers for opium and heroin addicts, and families cope alone with the problem. Most of them keep their battles secret due to strong social taboos against drug use. There are no anti-drug information campaigns and no reported destruction of confiscated narcotics.

In Tajikistan, statistics for drug use are unavailable, but drug use of all kinds is reported high. Deputy Prime Minister Nigina Aharopova said recently that 40 percent of young people use drugs ranging from soft to hard substances. And she said use is especially high in southern and central regions near the Afghan border.

Tajik officials are making anti-drug information available to the young and have established treatment clinics where some 3,000 people have registered voluntarily, more than half of them with heroin addiction. But treatment is limited by lack of medicines. And in Tajik prisons, there is no special care for addicts.

For the three former Soviet republics, the priority is to fight traffickers rather than prevention and treatment. But as the flood of cheap narcotics from Afghanistan continues unabated, that balance soon may need adjustment. The traffickers show no signs of discouragement, and the region's number of addicts is growing ever harder to ignore.

(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, Turkmen Service, and Tajik Service contributed to this story.)