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Iran: Country's Drug Problems Appear To Be Worsening

Iranian authorities, in an annual rite, burn some 50 tons of drugs in mid-2004 18 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The use of narcotics, particularly opium, has always been a problem in Iran. Tehran eventually eradicated opium crops in the country; but having Afghanistan, the world's biggest opium producer, as a neighbor means that the problem not only persists but is getting worse. Opiates are not the only issue, as Iranians' use of cannabis and synthetic drugs is increasing.

The most recent "World Drug Report" from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which was released in late June, notes that continuing increases in Afghan opium production are resulting in higher seizure rates in neighboring countries. In 2004, some 500 tons of morphine and heroin and 1,000 tons of opium were exported from Afghanistan. Of that amount, Iran's seizure rate (26 metric tons) is second only to Pakistan's (35 metric tons). In fact, according to the report, Iran is responsible for 24 percent of global opiate seizures. Iran accounted for 73 percent of global opium seizures in 2003, according to the report, and 17 percent of heroin and morphine seizures in the same year.

Tehran is trying to address the supply side of the narcotics problem by cooperating with Afghanistan. General Mohammad Davood, deputy chief of the Afghan Interior Ministry's Drug Control Headquarters, said at a 6 July news conference in Kabul that Iran has been of great assistance, IRNA reported. He said Iranian efforts have been particularly helpful for residents of Farah and Nimruz provinces. Davood made his comments after a meeting of counternarcotics officials from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom.

Afghan Interior Minister Ali Jalali thanked Iran for its help in the war on drugs on 26 June, IRNA reported. Jalali referred to Iran's creation of border-control checkpoints.

The global community marked the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking on 26 June, and at a ceremony in Tehran that day 64 tons of drugs were destroyed in a bonfire. Speaking at the day's event, Ali Hashemi, secretary-general of Iran's Drug Control Headquarters, said that proximity to the biggest opium producer is the main problem confronting Iran, IRNA reported. He predicted that it would take a full 10 years to destroy drug-production facilities there.
"You have drug groups like guerrilla forces. They shoot heavily with rocket launchers, heavy machine guns, and Kalashnikovs."

Speaking at the same event, Hojatoleslam Qorban Ali Dori-Najafabadi, the state prosecutor-general, said that the country is threatened by a tidal wave of drugs that is even more dangerous than the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia six months earlier, Mehr News Agency reported. Dori-Najafabadi called on the UNODC to provide Iran with greater financial assistance.

Drug Control Headquarters chief Hashemi discussed the country's counternarcotics campaign in late May. He said that in the space of one year, nearly 300 tons of drugs were seized, "Iran" reported on 23 May. This included 11 tons of morphine, five tons of heroin, and 182 tons of opium. Nearly 200,000 people were arrested for drug-related offenses.

Hashemi went on to say that Iran is bearing the main expense for protecting Europe from drugs. He added that during a recent trip he told his European counterparts that Iran needs night-vision equipment for helicopters, electronic eavesdropping devices, X-ray equipment, and similar tools, but it has not gotten them yet.

The head of the UNODC office in Tehran, Roberto Arbitro, noted the level of violence. "You have drug groups like guerrilla forces," he said in the 16 June issue of "The Times" of London. "They shoot heavily with rocket launchers, heavy machine guns, and Kalashnikovs."

It is not unusual, therefore, that the Iranian military has played a big part in confronting traffickers. Brigadier General Hamid Gorizan, who commands the Mersad military base in the southeastern Kerman Province, discussed some of the armed forces' efforts in narcotics interdiction. He said the base was created in 1995 in order to counteract armed bands of traffickers, stop banditry, and in general terms, to restore a sense of security in the eastern part of the country, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on 6 March.

Gorizan said the war on drugs exists on two levels. First, there is the erection of concrete barriers along the borders and in mountainous areas, as well as setting up 135 kilometers of barbed-wire obstacles in desert areas. He added that there are 630 kilometers of earthen barriers (berms) and 615 kilometers of canals. Furthermore, the Mersad base has been improved, and smaller bases were established in Sistan va Baluchistan Province, South Khorasan Province, and Kerman Province. "Based on these measures, I think there will be no safe point for traffickers throughout the entire east of the country," he said.

On another level, Gorizan said, the legislature and central government should provide adequate funds for the counternarcotics effort, and the budget should accurately reflect policy requirements. He added that public order and security is dependent on a comprehensive plan that provides people with better social and cultural opportunities. Gorizan said security agencies' input should be part of the policymaking process. Gorizan said the status of people living in rural provinces should be improved, and he referred to "poverty and deprivation, unemployment, and homelessness."

Health Problems

The Iranian narcotics-seizure rates are impressive, but UN officials told "RFE/RL Iran Report" that this is only 10-15 percent of the amount that enters the country. They estimated, furthermore, that 40 percent of the narcotics stays in Iran while the remaining 60 percent ends up in Iraq, Turkey, the Caucasus, and eventually Europe.

For years, officials have said some 2 million Iranians are addicts or abuse drugs. But they also acknowledge that this is a baseline figure from a 1999 survey, and some officials estimate that the real number is almost 3 million.

Drug Control Headquarters chief Hashemi rejected lower police estimates on the number of drug addicts. Hashemi said that number of known addicts is 2.5 million-3.35 million, "Iran" reported on 4 July. He noted that the number of addiction-related arrests has increased from 78,000 in 1987 to 431,430 in 2004. The amount of seizures during the same period is 10 times higher. He therefore asked, "Do these figures not point to an increase in demand?" He also noted the rise in prices for opium and heroin.

The prevalence of intravenous drug use by addicts has contributed to a climbing rate of HIV/AIDS. The UNODC report estimates that some 15,000 Iranians are infected with HIV/AIDS, and 65-75 percent of them got it by sharing needles.

Iran has been fairly progressive in trying to deal with this problem, with AIDS-awareness programs, needle-exchange programs, and methadone treatment for addicts. The UNODC's Arbitro said, "I have to pay tribute to Iran on this," according to "The Washington Post" on 5 July.

Not Just Opiates

Opiates are not the only drugs that Iran must confront. According to the UNODC report, 8 percent of 90 countries it surveyed said cannabis originating in Iran is a problem. After Morocco, however, Afghanistan and Pakistan were cited as the top sources. Iran seized 77 tons of resin in 2003.

Drug Control Headquarters chief Hashemi said in the 23 May "Iran" that 82 tons of hashish and nearly 16 tons of other drugs were seized in the past year.

Iranians also are abusing synthetic drugs, such as crystal methamphetamine (known as "sisheh") and ecstasy ("qorsha-yi shadi-avar"). These drugs are becoming a serious problem, according to a mid-June report by Radio Farda. Tehran Medical Sciences University's Dr. Azarkhash Makari reminded Radio Farda's listeners that just because the drugs come in the form of pills they are not made in a real pharmaceutical factory. He said the use of ecstasy is more common in Iran than the use of crystal methamphetamine but that the latter drug is more addictive and more dangerous.

Fariba Soltani, a physiologist and drug-control specialist based in Vienna, told Radio Farda that there is still insufficient data on the health problems associated with ecstasy abuse. However, she added, any substance that impedes an individual's ability to make decisions will contribute to that person's engaging in dangerous activities.