x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Iran fights scourge of addiction

With at least 800,000 hooked on opiates, usually smuggled from Afghanistan, the government uses progressive means to tackle the menace.

TEHRAN // Iran's anti-drug trafficking chief has chided the international community for not doing enough to help stop the flow of drugs from Afghanistan, as the Islamic Republic struggles with high rates of drug addiction.

"Iran expects the EU and the world to do more than just thank Iran," said Brig Gen Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam, head of the drug control headquarters, as he announced plans last month to seal Iran's border with Afghanistan.

According to Brig Gen Moghaddam, Iran seized 900 tonnes of narcotics in 2007, including what the United Nations estimated to be 80 per cent of the total opium seized worldwide, but the battle has cost the lives of more than 3,500 Iranian security officers.

And much of the contraband is still making its way to the country's towns and cities, fuelling a major drug addiction problem.

The Iranian government estimates that between 800,000 and 1.7m of its citizens are addicted to opiates, though the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) puts the number nearer to four million. One government official told local press this year it could be as high as 10m.

In recent years, however, the government has adopted a progressive approach to tackling addiction (winning admiration from western countries and rare praise from the United Nations), and drug addicts these days can turn to one of the many hundreds of state-run and non-governmental drug treatment and prevention centres.

Sitting in a conference room in the Aftab addiction treatment clinic in downtown Tehran, Mehdi, 26, snapped a rubber band fastened around his wrist and winced in pain. "I do this every time I feel the need for drugs," he said. "It takes my mind off them."

Mehdi, who asked to use only his first name, is addicted to heroin, the result of a drug habit that started three years ago after his father died. He began smoking hashish and opium to escape from the grief and the pressures of having to support his family but it was not long before he moved on to more potent and addictive substances.

At Aftab he receives doses of methadone to neutralise his cravings as well as an intensive treatment programme, which he said has changed his life: "One hundred per cent."

At such centres as Aftab, drug addicts can receive access to support groups and full treatment, which can include hospitalisation. Mehdi was hospitalised for four months after a relapse when his plans to get married went awry.

Parviz Maleki, director general of Aftab and a senior governmental adviser on drug addiction, said the government's open approach to tackling drug addiction could not have come soon enough.

"The old way of considering drug abuse as a crime was not working," he said. "Drug users could never seek help so they could never be rehabilitated. The problem was just getting worse."

About 100,000 addicts are now receiving methadone, according to the ministry of health.

In Iran, however, classifying drug addiction is not so straightforward. It and surrounding countries - such as Pakistan and Afghanistan - share histories of opium use and in many parts of these countries smoking it is a cultural norm.

Historically, opium in Iran has been used as a painkiller and for other medicinal purposes. In 1943, a government-sponsored study estimated that 1.4m Iranians out of a population of 14m were "addicted" to opium.

These days, 93 per cent of the world's opium is produced in neighbouring Afghanistan, 60 per cent of which passes through Iran to US markets, among others, according to the UNODC.

Heroin and crack - a crystal base heroin different from crack cocaine - are easy to find and cheap in Iran compared to Europe or the United States. In Tehran, a gram of crack sells for about 50,000 Iranian Rials (Dh18).

Joseph, 28, a friend of Mehdi's who has been using crack for the past five years, said he was easily able to pay for his habit while working as an upholsterer.

He has been off the drug for three months thanks to the treatment he receives at Aftab and support from his family, though addiction cost him his marriage.

"I tried many different things to get off heroin and crack - I went away to a camp, I tried URD [Ultra-Rapid Detox, where the patient is given drugs that block opiate receptors in the brain]. I locked myself up at home."

But only methadone gave Joseph the helping hand he needed to stay off crack and heroin. "It makes me feel normal," he said.

Each year, the government spends hundreds of millions of dollars erecting barriers along the borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan and pumping resources into checkpoints. Officials said the battle against drug addiction and trafficking costs Iran US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) a year.

Bijan Nassirimanesh, the president of the non-governmental Persepolis, which has three clinics in Tehran, said dealing with the root causes of addiction, ie, poverty and unemployment, were as important as the fight against drug trafficking.

"Most people use drugs for socio-economic reasons," he said. "Quite simply, if you have more money and better opportunities you are less likely to become addicted to drugs."

But Dr Nassirimanesh doubted that drug addiction could be eradicated completely.

"We need to be realistic about containing this problem rather than ending it."

jspollen@thenational.ae