Accessibility links

Breaking News

Iran: The Number Of Drug Addicts Is Rising

By Azam Gorgin and Charles Recknagel

Iran, like its Central Asian neighbors, is suffering a growing drug addiction problem with cheap opium and heroin from Afghanistan. In a two-part series, RFE/RL's Azam Gorgin looks at what treatment is available to Iranian drug addicts. Part 1 examines the scope of the problem.

Prague, 17 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In just one day this month, Iranian newspapers report security forces seized 80 kilograms of heroin and 13 kilograms of opium around the country.

And that is more or less a typical day in Iran's efforts to stem a flood of cheap heroin and opium flowing in from Afghanistan.

Experts are unable to say just how many tons of drugs come into Iran from its eastern neighbor, which today is the world's leading exporter of opium -- the raw material of heroin.

But some idea can be gained by the amount the security forces manage to intercept.

According to UN drug experts, Iran's drug seizures amount to 85 percent of all opium-based drugs confiscated worldwide in a year. Yet, the experts say, Iran still manages to intercept less than 20 percent of the total mass of drugs moving into the country.

Most of the Afghan drug trade is aimed at the lucrative markets of the Arab Gulf states and Europe. But some 40 percent of the drugs transiting Iran now remain in the country to fuel a growing domestic consumption. The result is that Iran is awash in cheap narcotics and the number of addicts is steadily climbing.

UN drug experts estimate the number of addicts in Iran today at some 1.25 million people. Iranian newspapers put the figure higher -- at two million. Both figures compare to about one million drug addicts five years ago. And similar increases have been reported in other countries bordering Afghanistan, including Central Asian states and Pakistan.

The reason why drug use in Iran and Afghanistan's other neighbors is climbing is frequently debated by drug experts. But many say that it is due to a combination of social and economic factors.

In many of the countries, a weak economy and high numbers of young people have created a difficult job market, frustrating numbers of job seekers. Narcotics offer one escape. And as the quantity of drugs moving through the region drives down prices, the narcotics become ever more affordable and commonly available.

RFE/RL recently spoke with Antonio Mazzitelli, who heads the UN Drug Control Program (UNDCP) office in Tehran. Our correspondent asked him to describe the patterns he sees in drug use in Iran -- who uses drugs, and why.

Mazzitelli says that most drug addicts in the country today are young people using opium. And he calls that a change in drug use practice in Iran, where traditionally opium addicts have been elderly people and generally tolerated by the society. Mazzitelli said: "In terms of substances abused, opium is the first abused by the majority. Followed by heroin and last comes hashish and marijuana...There are more and more young people that are getting addicted to drugs while until recently here the typical Iranian drug abuser was already a mature man."

Mazzitelli says that drugs attract young people in every country of the world, and Iran is no exception to that. And Iran currently has a very high percentage of young people -- over 60 percent of the population is under 21. That is due in part to a sharp increase in the birthrate following Iran's 1980-88 war with Iraq.

At the same time, high-unemployment in Iran -- which is consistently at double-digit figures -- helps swell the number of drug users. Mazzitelli: "Another reason certainly is the unemployment and, to a certain extent, the frustration that the Iranian youth [experiences]. Consider that the literacy rate in Iran is over 90 percent, that more Iranians have higher education degrees but the work market is not able to absorb them. Resorting to drugs, especially opium and heroin, is a solution to a certain extent to forget about the situation."

He also says that social restrictions in the Islamic Republic may contribute to use of drugs as an escape for people, including women.

"Women play an important role in Iranian society [and] like men they experience a lot of frustration due to the current unemployment situation. And the frustration of women might be even stronger compared to that of men because of certain restrictions which still exist on women's behavior."

Such restrictions include hardline vigilante groups targeting women in public to enforce stringent codes of dress and public behavior.

Meanwhile, public drug education programs to warn young people against the dangers of addiction are still in their infancy in the Islamic Republic. Mazzitelli said: "There are some experiences [with drug education] and there have been some attempts to institutionalize it on the national scale. But these attempts have not resulted yet in a firm decision. [The UNDCP is] working together with a drug control headquarters and the special department of the ministry of health and education on doing more in schools."

As the use of drugs has increased in Iran, so have efforts by police to round up dealers and addicts. The director of the government's Drug Addiction Control Center in Tehran, Mohammad Fallah, recently said that last year 206,000 addicts were arrested. Of these, 38,000 were referred to rehabilitation centers.

At the same time, while maintaining that addiction is a crime, the Islamic Republic two years ago passed legislation to permit addicts to voluntarily turn themselves into treatment centers without fear of prosecution.

According to the UNDCP, the Iranian government today spends the equivalent of some $50 million annually on prevention and treatment of drug addiction. The UNDCP devotes another 4.5 million to activities to reduce the demand for drugs in Iran, in addition to efforts to help stop drug smuggling from Afghanistan.

(Part 2 is an interview with a doctor in Tehran who describes treatment available to addicts.)