Pubdate: Tue, 29 Jan 2008
Source: Arab American News, The (US)
Copyright: 2008 The Arab American News
Author: Meysam Aqakhanlu
Note: Meysam Aqakhanlu is a Tehran based journalist and editor-in-chief of 
Kavir, a local weekly paper in Khorasan province. This article originally 
appeared in Mianeh.neti.


TEHRAN - In an attempt to check the effects of strong new varieties of 
illicit drugs that are flooding the market, the government of President 
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has revived some of the punitive methods seen in the 
early days of the Islamic Revolution. Yet neither punitive action nor the 
continued use of preventive strategies introduced in later years seem to be 

Estimates of the number of Iranians who use drugs vary wildly. The 
commander of Iran's law enforcement forces, General Esmail Ahmadi-Moqaddam, 
has said there are about 1.2 million addicts and another 700,000 who can be 
considered recreational users. Others put the true figure much higher. 
Various experts and members of parliament have said there are almost four 
million addicts and 2.5 million occasional users, while other estimates 
have cited figures of up to nine million people.

If we take the middle-range estimate, a figure of 6.5 million users implies 
that around 26 million people have a drug problem in their family, assuming 
an average family unit of four.

The Iranian parliament's research center recently estimated the annual cost 
of combating narcotics and treating addicts at about 10,000 billion toman, 
or 11 billion U.S. dollars. That equates to ten per cent of Iran's gross 
domestic product.

The government has launched numerous schemes to tackle the nation's 
addiction problem over the past two-and-a-half decades, at immense cost to 
itself. International organizations such as the United Nations have 
consistently praised Iran for its efforts to fight narcotics trafficking. 
Aside from the financial cost, this has left 3,500 members of the military 
and police dead.

However, no end is yet in sight.

Official policy has evolved significantly over the years, with varying 
degrees of success.

Two decades ago, drug addicts were seen as criminals liable to receive a 
long prison sentence and a tough spell in a compulsory treatment facility. 
Patrols stationed at major city intersections would stop and arrest anyone 
suspected of being an addict. Mass executions of drug smugglers are a thing 
of the not-so-distant past.

Over time, it became apparent that the prisons were full of addicts, yet 
more and more people were taking up the habit. In response, the authorities 
embarked on a fundamental review of policy. As these changes kicked in, 
especially in 1997 and 1998, addicts ceased to be referred to as criminals, 
but rather as sufferers of an illness. Out went the religious 
advertisements which consigned addicts to hell, to be replaced with new, 
professionally-designed publicity material. The patrols were stopped, and 
run-of-the-mill addicts were no longer jailed.

As the state began to face the much greater threat of HIV/AIDS, drug 
addiction per se ceased to be a taboo subject. Syringes were distributed 
among addicts to prevent dirty needles spreading infection, methadone was 
made available to wean users off hard drugs, and proscribed drugs were even 
issued to those deemed to be high-risk and untreatable.

This was mirrored in changes to general attitudes within the regime. 
Formerly, the clerical establishment portrayed the spread of drug addiction 
as the result of a policy by Western powers to "annihilate the 
revolutionary youth of Iran." Now, however, they have begun to accept that 
what they had on their hands was above all a social crisis with roots in 
domestic problems such as unemployment.

Early on in the 1997-2005 presidency of Mohammad Khatami, media reported a 
proposal by some experts that the Iranian intelligence agencies should help 
secure the passage of drugs through Iran - intercepting it in the east and 
transporting it to international smuggling rings on the eestern border - 
with the idea that this would stop narcotics being sold on the street 
inside the country.

Dr. Kambiz Mehrasa, who heads a non-government group active in helping 
people end their addiction, says that even if the Khatami administration's 
policies failed to curb the growth of addiction, they did institutionalize 
a new model for dealing with drugs, based on reducing demand. At this time, 
he recalled, the government abandoned rigorous judicial methods in favor of 
cooperation with international organizations and local groups specializing 
in combating addiction. Instead of locking addicts up, it sent them back to 
their families to enable them to carry on with their lives.

The non-government Association of Unknown Addicts, which still provides 
welfare support and psychological help for at least 800,000 reformed 
addicts, is an example of the kind of initiative that emerged during the 
Khatami years. Such was the level of official engagement at that time that 
members of the state's law enforcement, penal, welfare, judicial and 
education agencies took part in the programs run by the association.

The Ahmadinejad administration came to power in 2005 at a time when 
patterns of drug consumption were shifting, creating problems of a whole 
new order. For the last three years, experts have warned that traditional 
drugs such as hashish, opium and heroin are being supplanted by new 
industrially-produced chemicals such as ecstasy and more concentrated 
variants of heroin.

In mid-November, Iran's top police officer, General Ahmadi-Moqaddam, was 
quoted by official news agencies as saying the government was not yet in a 
position to identify industrially-manufactured drugs, let alone tackle the 

"Crystal" and "crack" heroin are the two commonest variants of the new 
generation of narcotics. They represent the most refined form of heroin, 
processed to 95 per cent purity at hi-tech laboratories. As a result, the 
accident news pages in the Iranian papers are full of reports of news of 
young people dying from these highly potent drugs. (Editor's note: the 
crystal and crack heroin available in Iran are not to be confused with two 
drugs common in the West - crack cocaine, a derivative of the South 
American coca plant, and "crystal meth," the synthetic drug methamphetamine.)

Dr. Banafsheh Talebi, who runs an addiction treatment clinic in Tehran, 
says that based on her own observations, the incidence of sudden death has 
increased many times over because of the spread of crystal and crack 
heroin, "shabu" (metamphetamine hydrochloride) and other synthetic drugs.

According to Dr. Talebi, the rate at which these new products are spreading 
and their destructive effects are baffling. The bodies of crack heroin 
victims decompose within a few hours of death. Tehran's city mortuary has 
officially announced that it cannot wash the bodies of crack addicts.

In these circumstances - changes in consumption and scare stories about 
rising addiction levels at schools and universities - there are indications 
that government officials have returned to some of the more punitive 
policies of a few years back.

Last April, police chief Ahmadi-Moqaddam said drugs were the most important 
security challenge facing Iran, and revived the argument that "global 
imperialism" was trying to propagate addiction in order to demoralize young 
Iranians and deprive them of pride in themselves and their Islamic identity 
and education.

These remarks were made in the context of the explosion in opium production 
in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taleban in 2001, but they bear an 
undeniable resemblance to the kind of arguments that were made in the first 
decade of the Islamic revolution. A few months ago, Ahmadi-Moqaddam also 
emphasized that in the eyes of the police, a drug addict is merely a 
criminal, not a sick person.

This change in attitude has translated into policy. At the end of October, 
the law-enforcement agencies launched a massive operation to detain petty 
drug smugglers, on a scale unprecedented in the last decade. At the same 
time, tougher penalties have been imposed on dealers, more people have been 
executed in border regions after being convicted of smuggling drugs.

The state welfare organization has cut its budget allocation for preventive 
action on addiction, whereas the government has approved a 100 per cent 
increase in funding for its anti-drugs headquarters for the coming year.

To boost the interdiction effort, the authorities have in recent years 
deployed 50,000 additional personnel in the Sistan and Baluchestan 
province, which borders Afghanistan and Pakistan, installed 800 kilometres 
of frontier barriers and introduced new equipment such as RASIT radars and 
unmanned planes.

All this indicates that some government decision-makers see the solution as 
lying in a return to the use of force. The difference this time is that the 
main thrust of the offensive targets small-time dealers rather than addicts.

That is not to say that preventive strategies have been abandoned 
altogether. The government has also been implementing schemes such as 
methadone therapy and installing automatic syringe dispensers in high-risk 
areas, thus continuing Khatami-era methods.

Yet despite the diversity and sheer scale of the anti-narcotics effort, 
there is little doubt that the drug problem continues to rise inexorably.

Many experts believe that addiction will only be brought under control when 
the factors that drive young people to use drugs are addressed. They argue 
that unemployment levels must be reduced, more scope offered for legal 
forms of recreation, and greater social freedoms provided. If this does not 
happen, drugs will remain an ever-present threat, particularly to 
unemployed, depressed young people with little faith in their future.

This profile of the typical user was confirmed by a graphics student, who 
did not want to be named but admitted to having many friends who were 
addicts. "I don't think any of my friends would have used drugs at the 
encouragement of CIA or Mossad agents," said the student, referring to the 
claim by some officials that drugs are being pushed by Iran's enemies 
abroad. "They got addicted because they were suffering from anxiety, 
unemployed, had no other means of recreation, or had a failed relationship."

These days, addicts also get more sympathy and understanding from their 
relatives. As Dr. Mehrasa puts it, a couple of decades ago, phrases like 
"opium-smoker," "bhang-user," "heroin-user" and "addict" were purely terms 
of abuse that would, for example, be traded by urban youth during 
streetfights. Now, these words have more of a connotation of a victim in 
need of support rather than opprobrium.

Meysam Aqakhanlu is a Tehran based journalist and editor-in-chief of Kavir, 
a local weekly paper in Khorasan province. This article originally appeared 
in Mianeh.neti.
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