Iran faces worsening drug addiction problem

Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli said drug smugglers accounted for 80% of executions.

A scourge. An Iranian member of the anti-drug police stands guard as tonnes of drugs recovered from traffickers are destroyed in the north-eastern city of Mashhad. (AFP)


2017/07/09 Issue: 114 Page: 20


The Arab Weekly
Gareth Smyth



Washington - The “World Drug Report 2017” of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNO­DC), said global opium production jumped by one-third in 2016, due largely to a 43% rise in Afghanistan, which sup­plies 85% of the world’s non-phar­maceutical grade poppies.

“Opioids were the most harmful drug type and accounted for 70% of the negative health impact associ­ated with drug use disorders world­wide,” the UNODC reported.

The US overthrow of the Taliban in 2002 had the unexpected out­come of leading to an increase in opium production. The Taliban had worked with the UN to curb poppy farming but, as it has regained con­trol of much of Afghanistan, the Taliban has used poppies to fund its war against the Kabul regime and, the United National said, derives half its income from drugs.

Production rocketed from 185 tonnes a year in 2001, the last year of Taliban rule, to 4,800-6,000 tonnes in 2016. Most is sold for her­oin production in Europe and Rus­sia but the number of addicts in Af­ghanistan reached 3 million in 2015, up from 1 million in 2010.

The growth also affects countries of transit, including the Caucuses and the Balkans. Sharing a 900km border with Afghanistan, Iran faces a growing problem of addiction. The country’s Drug Control Organi­sation (DGO) recently said there were 2.8 million people in an 80 million population “regularly con­suming drugs,” up from 1.3 million in 2011. DGO spokesman Parviz Af­shar told the ISNA news agency that opium makes up 67% of consump­tion, with marijuana and its deriva­tives 12% and methamphetamine 8%.

The IRNA news agency quoted Saeed Safatian, head of a drugs working group in the state’s Expe­diency Council, admitting the real figures could be higher as many addicts were too ashamed to admit their problem.

A lack of consistency in catego­risation also makes it hard to trace the increase. In “Drugs, Deviancy and Democracy in Iran,” a study published in 2011, Janne Bjerre Christensen, an anthropologist at the University of Copenhagen, es­timated 3.5 million-4 million drug users in Iran — fully 5% of the coun­try population, which was then ap­proximately 70 million.

Iran’s efforts to combat smug­gling reveal the scale of the prob­lem, with smugglers along the Af­ghan and Pakistani borders armed with heavy weapons including anti-aircraft guns. Christensen said that 3,500 Iranian police officers had been killed fighting smugglers since 1979, not counting customs officers and soldiers. Iranian media recently quoted a figure of 4,000 police of­ficers killed.

Iran has adopted draconian pun­ishments. Amnesty International said more than 567 people were ex­ecuted in 2016, the world’s second highest number of judicial execu­tions after China, where numbers are a classified secret. In 2014, Ira­nian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli said drug smugglers accounted for 80% of executions, which he defended on grounds that “generally, they are armed and vio­lent people who have even commit­ted rape.”

Attempting to seal Iran’s eastern provinces, authorities spent $700 million on fences. However, in Sistan-Baluchestan province espe­cially, years of drought have made smuggling attractive to impover­ished farmers, while extremist Sun­ni political groups add to a growing sense of lawlessness.

Authorities for a long time blamed the West for fuelling demand for narcotics, reinforcing notions held by some clerics of Western moral decline. Such arguments do not take into account the level of addic­tion among veterans from the war of 1980-88 with Iraq, however, and drug use in Iran is far from new.

Christensen uncovered govern­ment figures from the 1950s show­ing 1.5 million of a population of 19 million (8%) were drug users, with eating or smoking opium common since the 15th century. She high­lighted improvements under the Is­lamic Republic in treatment and re­habilitation with the Ahmadinejad government developing coopera­tion with international agencies and endorsing “one of the most progres­sive, NGO-operated drug treatment programmes, in the Middle East”.

Few issues illustrate a greater international challenge, yet intel­ligence and security cooperation between affected countries is noto­riously poor.

Russian security reportedly seized 40 kilograms of heroin last year on the Kazakh border alone. Russia is cagey on figures but is thought to have 8 million heroin us­ers. Last year the number of people with HIV reached a million, double the 2010 figure, with 1% of pregnant women HIV-positive in 15 of the country’s 82 regions.

Heroin is less prevalent in the United States, with 828,000 us­ers in 2015, government figures indicate, but US deaths from her­oin overdoses have risen six-fold since 2002 and the country has the world’s worst misuse of prescribed opioids.

Hence, the United States accounts for about one-quarter of global drug deaths, with a 200% increase from 1999-2015, the UNODC’s “World Drug Report 2017” stated. “Indeed,” it noted, “far more people die from the misuse of opioids in the United States each year than from road traf­fic accidents or violence.”


Gareth Smyth has covered Middle Eastern affairs for 20 years and was chief correspondent for The Financial Times in Iran.


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