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 working.
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 problem.
"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.net
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