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