Chasing the Dragon in Tehran

Behind its façade of Muslim piety, Iran is one of the most drug-addled countries in the world.

Today’s Islamic Republic offers premonitions of a narcodystopia. Take a car ride through Tehran at night, and your driver may tell you that the underage girls in chadors who offer esfand — seeds that are burned to ward off the evil eye — along the highways are really selling sex to enable addicted fathers. Ride the metro, and you will see battered children pitching trinkets and fortunes to sustain their parents’ habits.


TEHRAN – On June 26, Iranian state media reported that 20,000 former drug addicts had assembled at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium to mark the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attended, and used the podium to portray narcotics as an implement of Western predation. “Today,” he said, Western countries “have begun harming nations, especially the Iranian nation, by drugs. Arrogant states masquerade themselves behind the so-called humanitarian masks and they want to stir a sense of inability in other nations. They put on masks of freedom-seeking, human rights, and protecting people but in fact they are the biggest criminals in the world.” 

Tehran is one the higher capitals on the earth’s surface, and not only in terms of altitude. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reports that Iran has 1.2 million “drug-dependent users,” and that 2.26 percent of the population aged 15-64 is addicted to opiates. The organization’s director, Yuri Fedotov, has praised Iran for having “the world’s highest rate of seizures of opium and heroin,” and for developing effective treatment and prevention programs. Human Rights Watch, by contrast, has criticized Fedotov for glossing over the country’s inadequate legal proceedings and executions of drug offenders. Most alarmingly, people arrested during opposition demonstrations, such as the Dutch-Iranian Sahra Bahrami, have occasionally been hanged as “drug smugglers.”

Today’s Islamic Republic offers premonitions of a narcodystopia. Take a car ride through Tehran at night, and your driver may tell you that the underage girls in chadors who offer esfand — seeds that are burned to ward off the evil eye — along the highways are really selling sex to enable addicted fathers. Ride the metro, and you will see battered children pitching trinkets and fortunes to sustain their parents’ habits. Visit a poor southern suburb like Shahr-e Rey, and you might see a cigarette vendor in the bazaar with a sideline in used needles. Walk through Khaju Kermani Park on the capital’s southeastern outskirts, and you might witness young girls smoking crystal meth in full view of park authorities, while in the background a tall, badly sunburned man with track marks on his arms staggers around in an ill-fitting, woman’s blouse.

Yet the Iranian drug scene is not an exclusive feature of the country’s decadent capital, or solely of its abject underclass. Its roots run deep and wide: For example, when I was visiting the tomb of the 12th-century poet Saadi, a tourist attraction in the southern city of Shiraz, Azad, a local literary critic who was showing me around, gestured beyond the garden walls to the adjacent neighborhood, named Saadieh after the poet. This he identified as a hub for the region’s thieves, traffickers, and drug addicts. “Would you like to visit? It’s very easy to visit, but you might not come back alive,” he joked. I had seen enough Iranian skid rows to demur, but, intrigued by the apparent intersection of drugs and high culture, I pressed him for insights.

In a display of Persian hospitality, he invited me to the home of a learned opium enthusiast to witness a display. Opium, Azad told me, is Iran’s oldest and most entrenched drug, and was used medically in the region by Avicenna, the great Persian philosopher-scientist, 1,000 years ago. In ensuing centuries, it was extolled by the poets of the Persian canon. The best-loved of these, Hafez, measured his ecstasies against it, writing, in the genre of love:

“A wound from you is worthier than salve from others/Your poison, sweeter than the opium they render.”

When we entered the front room of a large house on the city’s periphery — shielded from the street by high walls — there lay arranged on the floor a metal brazier full of coals, an opium pipe, and other paraphernalia, along with plates of watermelon (your reliable narrator partook only of the fruit).

“We love it and we hate it,” remarked Mani, Azad’s friend, a soft-spoken and serious academic in his sixties, as he began to light up. “It has so many problems, difficulties, but also attractions. In my family, my father used it, but he would always say, ‘Don’t touch it.’ He was against it because he used it himself, but later we smoked it together. I used it because it seemed romantic, poetic.”

“When you first use it,” Azad added, “it makes you relaxed. It makes you have good sleep, or it can give you nightmares and make your imagination work. Especially when you do [creative] work, it gives you the concentration you need. Mowlana, the poet, used it 800 years ago and mentioned it in his work. Hafez mentioned it. But in Iran today, artists and writers have no role, and they are suffering from their own nothingness, so they become disappointed, and look for something to make them calm.”

“Socially it’s looked at very negatively,” Mani added slowly as he recovered from a long hit. “It’s often criticized in government propaganda. And there’s the impact it has on families. But it is still accepted in some parts of Iran, like in [the south-eastern province of] Kerman. Traditionally, when a girl gets married there, among the things she’s expected to take to her husband is an elaborate set for preparing opium, even though it’s illegal.”

“In the shah’s time,” he continued, “there was even a certain prestige attached to it. His brothers used it. His father was an opium addict, and everyone knew it. In Islam, the attitude towards opium is not completely negative; in fact, it’s not mentioned.” Before the revolution, he added, “there was a brand of opium known as ‘senator.’ Now, they should call it ‘ayatollah.'”

Despite his insinuation of the drug’s appeal to Iran’s rulers past and present, Mani sees opium as a drug in decline. “There is a lot of pressure from outside, because most of the heroin and opium that gets into Europe goes through Iran. [The international community] gives the government money to respond,” he said, referring to financial support Western countries give UNODC. The result, he said, is that opium has become expensive. “Mostly rich people use it now, but the quality is much worse. It might be quite dangerous. Chemical drugs are much cheaper and more accessible to the youth, and they require less paraphernalia.”

Before I left, Azad asked me to be careful with the pictures I had taken of their session because “the government is after just such a thing, especially when it involves intellectual people.”

Back in Tehran, I sought a more clinical take on the subject, and met Ali, a gentle 32-year-old social worker at an addiction treatment facility in the city’s eastern Tehranpars neighbourhood.

“The problem of drugs in Iran does not belong to any particular class or educational background,” he emphasized. He sees more than 100 regular patients, from a range of economic spheres. Some are poor Afghan workers with no legal status or family support, while others are — or have been — wealthy. “One [of my patients] is a dentist who worked in the United States,” he said, aiming to surprise.  “He had a car accident there, and was injected with morphine. After he was released from hospital, he started injecting himself, and eventually lost everything he had and moved back to Iran.”

Ali described two main classes of drugs with which he deals. There are opiates, such as opium, morphine, and “crack” (which in Iran describes not the most addictive form of cocaine, but the most impure form of heroin) — and synthetics, which includes ecstasy, psychedelics, and “shisha” — crystal meth. Shisha and crack habits, Ali told me, are the most common forms of addiction.

He explained that drug treatment has come a long way since the revolution. “There was a time when if someone was using drugs, it was viewed as a disaster by families. The treatment was locking up, even chaining up, those who were addicted. Politics aside, drug addiction is a horrible problem for any government to face, and attitudes have changed. Rehab centres keep opening. The hopes of families really increase when they see treatment working.” But successes in treatment for opiate habits, he added, have been countered by mafias introducing synthetics, with which treatment centers have less experience.

Improbably for a country where lawbreakers and ideological renegades are regularly hanged in public, Iran can be uncharacteristically lenient where addicts are concerned. The center where Ali works dispenses government-subsidized methadone to opiate users and conducts “self-awareness therapy” for those on methamphetamines. Some patients even visit the center from prisons, where they undergo treatment programs. Ali spends much of his time counseling youths, families, and spouses, and conducting group support sessions.

He invited me to one of his sessions, which bore likenesses to Western 12-step programs, with its heavy emphasis on personal responsibility. The meeting even concluded with a non-denominational group prayer.  

In light of what I’d heard and witnessed, I tried to think my way into Ahmadinejad’s Azadi Stadium remarks. The president failed to point out that Western markets have made Iran a conduit for narcotics, or that Iran can only resent that its police face danger, in part, for the benefit of authorities in decadent Europe. Nor did he suggest that international demand for opiate interdiction might be contributing to the spread of crystal meth in Iran, thereby exacerbating drug harm. He dismissed the language of human rights, perhaps insinuating that calls for leniency toward drug pushers are ill-intentioned, and so it’s just as probable that his logic is unabashedly conspiratorial. If so, his view is echoed by Hamidreza Hosseinabadi, head of Iran’s anti-drug task force, who last year accused British forces in Afghanistan of actually guiding traffickers into Iran.

Following Ali’s support session, I ran Ahmadinejad’s statements by Rahim, a bazaar merchant and recovering opium addict in his fifties who had led the group prayer. He was having none of it.

“The way I see it,” he said, “We can’t blame other people for our mistakes. You could pile up all the drugs in the world in a square in Tehran, but only those who want to use them will take them. You can’t say, ‘because there are drugs, I became addicted.’ Some people say, ‘it’s my parents’ fault, it’s my friends’ fault, it’s my country’s fault, it’s the regime’s fault,’ but after going through this program, I believe that [my addiction] was my fault, not the fault of my government or of the United States.”