Opiates of the Iranian People

Drug users relax in the shade at an empty lot in southern Tehran, one of the poorest areas of the Iranian capital.
Drug users relax in the shade at an empty lot in southern Tehran, one of the poorest areas of the Iranian capital. (By Ramin Talaie For The Washington Post)

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By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 23, 2005

TEHRAN -- If he could afford it, Ali Nariman would drink beer, he says. But like most Iranians, he is poor, and so takes his solace in the form of a small gray ball of opium.

Swallowed whole for maximum absorption, the ball takes only half an hour to deliver the warm, surging relief that inhabitants of the Persian plateau have long associated with advanced age. For centuries in Iran, opium was regarded as a privilege of the elderly, a largely medicinal comfort for the pains and worries accumulated over a lifetime of work.

Nariman is 18. And like hundreds of thousands of Iranians turning to harder narcotics at younger ages, he regards drugs as the only alternative to work.

"We should have jobs," Nariman said, standing in the vast cemetery on the southern edge of Tehran. In a routine played out every Thursday, the day families traditionally visit the cemetery devoted mostly to war dead, young addicts sweep in afterward to scavenge the cookies and dates left on the graves.

"I sometimes find work," Nariman said, "collecting stale bread in town."

According to the U.N. World Drug Report for 2005, Iran has the highest proportion of opiate addicts in the world -- 2.8 percent of the population over age 15. Only two other countries -- Mauritius and Kyrgyzstan -- pass the 2 percent mark. With a population of about 70 million and some government agencies putting the number of regular users close to 4 million, Iran has no real competition as world leader in per capita addiction to opiates, including heroin.

When an earthquake leveled the city of Bam in 2003, among the emergency supplies rushed to the scene were doses of methadone, a synthetic drug used to treat heroin and morphine addicts, for the 20 percent or more of the population believed to be addicted. So many Iranians rely on opiates that an influential government analyst suggests the state itself should consider cultivating poppies.

"Yes," said Azarakhsh Mokri, director of the Iranian National Center for Addiction Studies: "A strategic reserve of narcotics."

Discount Prices

But if the utility of narcotics has roots in Iran's ancient culture, and the discount prices (about $5 for a gram of heroin, 50 percent pure) stem from proximity to the poppy fields of neighboring Afghanistan, experts, addicts and government officials agree that addiction has lately emerged as a corrosive new symptom of the country's economic failure, a marker for despair.

"You haven't got a job. You haven't got a family. You haven't got entertainment," said Amir Mohammadi, who at 30 has been an addict for 10 years. "For a few hours, you forget everything."

Heroin, a powerful derivative of opium, is taking hold among young people whose path to addiction typically stems from disappointment in the job market. A government poll shows almost 80 percent of Iranians detect a direct link between unemployment and drug addiction. Iran's government regularly fails to produce the 1 million jobs needed each year to accommodate the new workers entering the labor force from a baby boom still coming of age.

"We haven't reached the peak," said Roberto Arbitrio, head of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime in Tehran. "Unfortunately, there's room for increase."


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