Iranian society

The Islamic Republic has a drug problem

Headlines about Iran usually focus on its nuclear deal with the global powers, its controversial missile programme, not to mention international sanctions. The deep-rooted domestic challenges that the country faces get less attention. One of them is a drastic rise in narcotics consumption in the past ten years. By Mitra Shahrani

Local reports and statistics indicate that Iran’s government has failed to adequately address what has become a looming crisis. The UN Office on Drugs and Crimes considers the situation to be one of the most serious internationally. Opiates are the main cause of concern.

Iran′s drugs crisis is complex. In June 2017, Iran’s Drug Control Headquarters reported that, according to a representative survey, the number of drug addicts was between 2.8 million to 3 million people of the ages 15 to 65 years. Observers believe the real number to be even higher, but the official data indicated that narcotics abuse had doubled in six years. In August 2018, a member of the Iranian parliament’s Social Affairs Committee revealed that some addicts in Iran are as young as 11.

Drug abuse spreading among women

Indeed, one trend is that drug abuse is spreading among women and children. Sometimes, addicted women even give birth to addicted infants. The new-borns tend to live very short lives or struggle with the difficult withdrawal process.

Typically, older addicted children are from poor families who live in impoverished areas on the outskirts of metropolitan cities. They are constantly exposed to narcotics and some of them are used by their families to sell drugs or procure them for their parents.

Poverty probably pushes many people towards narcotics abuse, but not all addicts are poor. The escalation of Iran’s drug problem seems like a national epidemic, affecting people of different backgrounds. To some extent, the middle classes may use drugs for recreational purposes, but hopelessness seems to be an important issue.

Drug addict and her child in Tehran (photo: Tasnim)
Shocking development: one particularly worrying trend is the growth of drug abuse among women and children. Sometimes, addicted women even give birth to addicted infants. The new-borns tend to live very short lives or struggle with the difficult withdrawal process

Despair is widespread and believed to be growing because people lack economic and political prospects. Economic hardship resulting from decades of mismanagement and corruption, as well as international sanctions, is having a strong psychological impact on society.

Proximity to Afghanistan

Another important factor is Iran’s geographical location. The country is close to the hub of the world’s opium production. Afghanistan produces about 90 % of the world’s poppy harvest and opiates are smuggled from there to all other countries. Iran shares 921 kilometres of porous borders with Afghanistan. Transit routes run through Iran and various narcotics are easily available.

According to Parviz Afshar, the spokesperson of Iran’s Drug Control Headquarters, opium is the most widely used narcotic in Iran, accounting for about two thirds of the amounts consumed. Marijuana and its derivatives have replaced methamphetamine in second place accounting for about 12 % of drug use.

It is believed that cannabis and its offshoots are more commonly used by younger people, who also seem to speak more openly about it than those who use other drugs. Abbas Deylamizadeh, the head of the Rebirth Charity Society, believes that the open discussions about cannabis on social media and legalisation in parts of the western world have contributed to its popularity in Iran. Another reason may be that people can grow marijuana plants at home.

Policy changes

Since the revolution in 1979, the Iranian government has been trying to eradicate the production and use of narcotics as well as alcoholic beverages. They are all forbidden under the country’s Islamic laws. The laws are tough and have been enforced vigorously.

Drug dealers under arrest in Tehran following a drugs haul (photo: Mehr)
Tough anti-drug line has the opposite effect: until last year, the zero-tolerance policy against drug-offenders officially included capital punishment for anyone possessing even small amounts of hard drugs like heroin or cocaine. Over the past few decades, thousands of criminals have been arrested and executed. Recent statistics and reports show, however, that this rigid policy has not been successful. Indeed, the drug crisis has only become worse

Until last year, the zero-tolerance policy against drug-offenders officially included capital punishment for anyone possessing even small amounts of hard drugs like heroin or cocaine. Over the past few decades, thousands of criminals have been arrested and executed. Recent statistics and reports show, however, that this rigid policy has not been successful. Indeed, the drug crisis has only become worse.

In the late 1990s, non-governmental organisations did begin dealing with drug-related issues as social and medical problems rather than as criminal offences. At the time, Mohammad Khatami, the reformist president, was in office. More recently, the government itself has begun to take a similar approach. For example, it has now allocated budget money for setting up rehabilitation centres for children. Iran probably needs more rehab facilities, but these are steps in the right direction.

Last year, the government of President Hassan Rouhani got the Parliament and the Guardian Council to pass an amendment to the existing drug laws. This reform abolished the death penalty for some drug-offenders. According to estimates, the lives of about 4,000 prisoners on death row were thus saved. Nonetheless, capital punishment is still in place for offenders who possess or traffic at least two kilos of hard drugs or 50 kilos of opium or cannabis. Repeat offenders will also be sentenced to death.

Another change is that the government may now distribute substitute drugs to addicts. Hassan Norouzi, the spokesperson for the Parliament’s Judicial and Legal Commission, emphasised the need to "cut off the relationship between drug addicts and drug traffickers". The idea is that addicts will gradually give up their addiction instead of staying dependent on criminals. Similar rules were in force before the revolution, according to Norouzi.

All in all, Iran’s drug crisis appears to spring from the country’s economic, social and cultural problems. If it is to be dealt with properly, the government may need to address those issues first. As Saeid Sefatian, a member of Iran’s Expediency Council, which gives advice to Supreme Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, has put it: "drug addiction is Iran’s gravest social malady and the government needs to take serious professional measures to combat it."

Mitra Shahrani

© D+C | Development & Cooperation 2018

Freelance journalist Mitra Shahrani is currently completing a master′s degree in International Migration and Ethnic Relations at Malmo University, Sweden.

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Comments for this article: The Islamic Republic has a drug problem

Economic and social factors, yes. I wonder why after 17 years the most "civilised", richest and powerful state on earth - the U.S. - has been unable to defeat Taliban and eradicate drugs in Afghanistan

Nadeem16.12.2018 | 13:02 Uhr