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Iran: New Ways Considered For Tackling Growing Drug Use Among Young People

Despite its best efforts, Iran's drug problem has worsened over the years, with the number of addicts rising, their ages decreasing, and more and more narcotics being seized in the country.

Prague, 3 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Iran has paid a heavy price for its fight against drugs -- 3,500 police officers and soldiers have been killed in clashes with drug traffickers and billions of dollars have been spent on efforts to combat illegal narcotics over the last 20 years.

During this time, Tehran says 2.7 million people have been arrested for drug-related offenses and more than 10,000 drug traffickers and distributors have been executed. According to Iranian law, anyone who is found to be carrying more than 30 grams of heroin or 5 kilograms of opium could face the death penalty, although in recent years only a small percentage of these sentences have been carried out.

Despite these efforts, however, the drug problem in Iran has worsened. Officially, Iran has some 2 million drug addicts. But some experts say the real number of addicts is as high as 5 million to 6 million -- and increasing.

Drug addiction is the source of many of Iran's social problems, such as domestic violence and prostitution. Drug addiction is also the main cause for the fast spread of HIV/AIDS in Iran. Seventy percent of Iranians infected with the deadly virus are intravenous drug users. There are currently about 300,000 intravenous drug users in the country.

The major consumers of opium and heroin in Iran are young people. The use of chemical drugs, such as ecstasy, is also spreading among youth. Drug use among young people is a major preoccupation for Iranian officials, since 70 percent of Iran's population is 35 or younger.

Experts say an unemployment rate of about 20 percent, combined with a lack of social freedoms, are among the main causes for drug use among Iran's young population.

Twenty-year-old Amir from Tehran says that for many of his friends, using drugs is a way to escape. "We don't have entertainment here, and drugs are very cheap and easy to get," he said. "Whatever you get from the supermarket, for the same price you can buy drugs in your neighborhood. Because of this lack of entertainment, whenever young people get together, the only thing they think about is getting and using drugs because it makes them happy. And also because of the problems they have, they want to get rid of these problems for some time. They have no hope in the future. They think there is no future for them in Iran."

While possession of any drugs is forbidden in Iran, casual drug use is often tolerated and penalties for possession are not strictly specified. In most cases, first-time offenders are let go with a warning and a flogging. Those arrested numerous times for drug-related offenses can be sentenced to prison at the discretion of individual judges.

Iranian officials admit that, up to now, the methods they have used to fight drug use have been one-dimensional and unsuccessful. In recent years, officials in charge of the antidrug campaign have been underlining the importance of preventive measures and treatment. Drug addiction is being viewed more as a social problem than a crime.

Dr. Said Jahanshahi is an expert on the prevention of addiction and launched Iran's first website on the subject. Jahanshahi says more attention is now being paid to prevention in Iran. "The programs are moving toward prevention and harm reduction. For example, we don't have as many arrests as before, when they would immediately arrest someone for the use of drugs," he said. "The laws have not changed, but because the way addiction is viewed has changed, this problem [of arresting people] is to a large extent being solved. The budget for preventive measures has also naturally increased a lot."

Jahanshahi said Iran's Welfare Organization, the main state body responsible for the prevention of drug addiction, is focusing on new methods intended to eliminate the use of drugs as psychological "crutches."

"For example, a series of skills is being taught to students. They are not directly connected to addiction, but they learn how to control their emotions," Jahanshahi said.

Drugs are readily available in Iran due to its proximity to Afghanistan, the world's top opium producer. Drug traffickers use Iran as a major transit route for the transport of drugs from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Europe and Persian Gulf countries.

A large portion of the smuggled drugs hit the Iranian market. Iran accounts for 80 percent of the opium and 90 percent of the heroin seized in the world. But these hauls are estimated to be only about 15 percent of the drugs that enter the country.

William Samii is a regional analyst for Southwest Asia at RFE/RL. Samii says it is difficult for Iran to stop the flow of narcotics along its eastern borders. "It's a very long border with Afghanistan. It's about 936 kilometers long, and the terrain is very rough. It goes from mountainous to desert. The police, the army, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are tasked with guarding this border, but just because of this difficult terrain, they can't cover the entire range of it," Samii said, adding that drug traffickers tend to be more heavily armed than the security forces opposing them.

Samii says stopping the cultivation of opium poppies in Afghanistan is largely out of Iran's control. "One thing Iran is doing is working with Afghanistan to have crop substitutions so the Afghan farmers grow less opium and try to grow other crops," he said. "Unfortunately, this is something that's out of the Iranians' hands. As much as you might try to help Afghan farmers, if they don't have other economic options, they're going to continue to grow opium just so they can feed their families. So that's an issue that's going to confront the region -- not just Iran -- for years to come."

During a recent visit to Iran's eastern borders, Antonio Mario Costa, head of the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime, said more work needs to be done in Afghanistan. "Unless the farmers stop growing," he said, "the drugs will keep flowing."
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.