Pubdate: Sun, 26 Jun 2016
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2016 The New York Times Company
Author: Thomas Erdbrink


TEHRAN - At the Tehran party there was alcohol, of course, though it 
was a quiet affair, nothing like the wild, over-the-top events of 
urban legend. People just sat at a table, sipping drinks and talking 
as they would in many places across the world. After a while, someone 
made a phone call, and a few minutes later the doorbell rang and in 
walked a nondescript-looking man getting on in years.

He worked quickly, opening his briefcase to put his goods on display 
- - an impressive variety of locally produced marijuana brands with 
varying degrees of potency, with names such as Royal Queen, DNA and 
Nirvana. All the while, his phone kept ringing, and though Iranian 
etiquette prescribes that he allow the partygoers to take their time 
in choosing, he kept discreetly checking his watch. He had a lot of 
other stops to make.

Iran is notorious for its harsh code of conduct enforced by an 
extensive intelligence apparatus, and it has waged a long and painful 
war on heroin and opium trafficking, with security forces dying by 
the thousands over the past two decades in fights with Afghan cartels.

But the same government that executes hundreds of drug dealers every 
year - and cracks down periodically on alcohol, which is also illegal 
- - seems curiously oblivious to the growing popularity of marijuana.

The government opened 150 alcohol treatment centers in 2015, and the 
Health Ministry is deeply involved in combating hard drugs like 
heroin. But marijuana is mentioned only vaguely in the Islamic penal 
code, and the police pay it little heed. While the penalty for 
alcohol consumption is theoretically 99 lashes - most people get off 
with a fine - there are no prison sentences or lashings prescribed 
for people found carrying small amounts of pot.

As a result, marijuana use has skyrocketed. Gol, or flower, as 
marijuana is called here, can be found everywhere in and around the 
capital. The skunky smell of marijuana smoke wafts through 
restaurants in the ski resorts of Dizin and Shemshak. In the winter 
months, young skiers and snowboarders can be seen casually rolling 
joints while riding the chairlift up the mountain.

The aroma is routinely detected in Tehran's public spaces. "When you 
stroll through one of Tehran's parks, you can sometimes smell it, 
even on streets and squares," said Taba Fajrak, 27, who works as a 
choreographer. "Once, I even smelled it in a cafe."

In college dormitories, students use it to relax or concentrate, and 
during parties in private houses joints are passed around as 
comfortably as they might be in Boulder, Colo., or Amsterdam. Dealers 
are just a phone call away, and as common as the people who sell 
illicit DVDs or alcoholic drinks.

Iran does not keep official statistics on marijuana use. But 
anecdotal evidence and figures from rehabilitation clinics indicate 
that pot smoking is widespread in Iranian cities. Hossein Katbaei, 
the director of one such clinic, Camp Jordan, said the number of 
patients his staff was treating for marijuana abuse had quadrupled 
over the last five years.

Mr. Katbaei, a former truck driver with a long ponytail, and other 
addiction experts say young Iranians often become caught up in a 
vicious cycle. With widespread unemployment and forbiddingly high 
house prices, many young adults are forced to live at home, leading 
to lives of isolation and depression that they seek to escape through 

Marijuana is internationally often viewed as a nonaddictive drug. But 
those using it frequently can become dependent on it. According to 
the United States' National Institute of Drug Abuse, teenagers using 
marijuana are four to seven times more likely than adults to develop 
a marijuana disorders. In severe cases, the institute says, this can 
lead to addiction.

Iranian experts point out that a growing percentage of marijuana 
produced inside the country is laced with other drugs. Also, most 
seeds are smuggled in from Amsterdam, and many are genetically 
enhanced to produce more strength.

With the rise in marijuana use, the patients in Mr. Katbaei's clinic 
have changed.

"They are from middle-class families, often reasonably well off," 
said Youssef Najafi, a former drug addict who is now a counselor at 
the clinic. "They feel useless. Live at home. Their future is one big 
unknown. Some years ago we would only have a couple. At first they 
think it is harmless, but those who use it too much get depressed and 
ultimately psychotic."

Few older Iranians, whether health officials or parents, know much 
about marijuana or its effects, Mr. Najafi said. There is no 
government effort to inform people about the effects of marijuana 
use. In 2013, the current head of the police, Ali Moayedi, told state 
media that marijuana did not exist in Iran.

But during a counseling session at the camp, marijuana was very much 
on the top of the list of what most patients had been using while 
they were out. "Here in Iran at least, marijuana is really a gateway 
drug," Mr. Najafi said

It has the excitement of being technically illegal, he said, and 
lowers the bar for other drugs. "Methadone is freely available here, 
and a lot of the marijuana on the market is dipped in methadone, 
making joints much heavier."

Young Iranians tend to have a different take, not surprisingly, many 
regarding marijuana simply as a relatively new drug among a wide 
universe of forbidden pleasures. However, the difference from other 
substances that they might use is that pot for many is often smoked 
all through the day.

At 11 one morning, an unemployed 25-year-old man, Abdi, lit up a 
joint, the first one of the day, and recalled the nicknames of his 
friends with whom he used to smoke pot. There were "Mohammad 
Dog-Balls," who would buy the stuff; "Samy Detroit," who had lived in 
the United States; and Kiarash the cross-dresser, who was confused 
anyway. They were 17.

He said they had started with pot, then moved on to stronger drugs. 
He then launched into a long and complicated diatribe about the 
influence of Instagram on youths, inequality in Tehran and the need 
to forget everything.

His father had lost everything in a business deal that soured - the 
house, his job and his wife, the young man said. He, his father and 
brother lived in his father's former office. Selling marijuana, for 
around $7 a gram, provided a bit of extra income. Basically he was 
bored like many others, he said, with no work and no future. Pot, he 
said, brings some relief.

At Camp Jordan, Mr. Katbaei, the director, said he knew how 
determined addicts could be, having used all sorts of substances 
himself over the past two decades. Now clean, he was running a tight 
ship, continually eyeing a plasma television where the clinic's 
network of closed-circuit television cameras are monitored.

Mr. Katbaei said he wanted the expertise and funding of the United 
Nations. "This is a very serious problem, it is everywhere," he said.

The holy month of Ramadan presents a special problem, given 
marijuana's well-known effect on appetites. "I am a practicing Muslim 
and keep my fast during Ramadan," said Akhbar Kohpaye, 57, a 
wholesale egg dealer. "But I am worried for my two unmarried sons who 
might be under the influence of those using marijuana."

In the clinic counseling session, a new patient whispered in an 
interview that he was doing fine. He fidgeted with his hands, 
seemingly not knowing where to put them. He protested that he was not 
an addict, and said he did not think it was a big problem that he 
liked to smoke pot all day, every day.

In the back of the room, Mr. Katbaei shook his head. "Curing him will 
take time," he murmured.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom