A small slim, small man stands up, his dark eyes bright with emotion, a full moustache filling up his face. 'My name is Shahram and I am an addict,' he says gently. He is greeted by an enthusiastic response from the other men sitting around the room, the standard opening of a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Shahram proceeds to tell us that he was addicted to heroin, opium and hash for 14 years and has been clean - 'by the grace of God' - for one year. Today is the celebration of this anniversary and Shahram is presented with a cake set with a candle which he blows out, laughing and choking back the tears as the other men applaud him.
This may not be an unusual
scene but it is not taking place in your local church hall. We are standing in a
big hall in a park in Rey, in the deepest south of
Until one year ago today,
Shahram Khanalizadeh was one of
Despite the strict Sharia
laws which govern the country's Islamic system, according
to the UN World Drug Report for 2005,
a neighbour to
UN too has praised
to control the flow from
Opium has traditionally been a panacea to the aches and pains of old age, but the new generation of drug addicts have scorned opium for heroin. When the Taliban drastically cut opium production in 2000/2001, prices soared making the cheap and widely available heroin the natural option for addicts.
Shahram's story is typical.
Born 30 years ago into a poor family living in Rey, a suburb of
The baby boom that took place after the revolution of 1979 was encouraged by Ayatollah Khomeini, the post-revolutionary Islamic leader, who demanded more children to expand the revolution. Iranians duly obliged, and the population has jumped from 37 million in 1979, to around 70 million. This is a particularly remarkable figure when other factors are taken into account - up to four million people left the country at the time of the revolution and another million were killed in the eight-year war with Iraq. Of the present population around 70 per cent are under 30 - and these modern children of the revolution have very different needs and desires to their parents, making the generation gap particularly problematic.
Shahram's family problems
were exacerbated by the gaping social and economic divide between the south and
Shahram explains the resentment that fed his sense of hopelessness. 'I saw the kids uptown and they had everything. We had nothing and life was hard. I got more and more depressed and eventually I started smoking hash. I was trying to erase my problems rather than face them,' he says. As hash made him feel better - 'and our basic human nature is to want to enjoy ourselves' - Shahram continued on to opium during his two-year obligatory national service and despite cleaning up for a few months when he was wooing his wife, at his wedding he was again slipping away to get high.
By this time the price hikes in opium, coupled with his rising tolerance to it, pushed Shahram into trying heroin. He loved it. 'First of all, it was much more practical, it only took 20 minutes to smoke,' he tells me in a fast staccato. 'I didn't get the drowsiness of opium, and it was just better value.' He blushes and apologises to me for what he is about to say, as discussing sex with a strange woman is anathema to a Muslim man. 'Er, once I was married, I used more because, you know, I wanted to enjoy my wife more. As I said, I think it is a human instinct to want to take pleasure in your life.'
Shahram's habit soon became the most important thing in his life. 'I lost my job as a builder and sold whatever I could get my hands on to get money. I took the gold earrings out of the ears of my two-year-old daughter so I could sell them to score. I sold all our carpets, the furniture. I am ashamed of the things I did.' His wife hated his heroin habit and tried to make him stop. She even sold her gold jewellery to finance treatment, but despite several attempts, Shahram invariably returned to heroin after a month or two. 'There are lots of different programmes and they prescribe heroin substitutes but even if I beat the physical addiction, I never lost the craving. I know people who have had complete blood transfusions who still go back to using. You have to deal with the root of the problem, otherwise the rest is useless.'
By the time Shahram was introduced to NA, he had lost everything. His wife was living with her parents with their two children, 'although because we loved each other we never separated formally', and Shahram was living on the streets. He stole, lied, cheated and dealt drugs himself to feed his habit because 'I was just using in order to keep alive. It no longer made me high but my body couldn't function without it. Thank God I never got to injecting because then I would have ended up in jail with HIV.' He smiles broadly, 'I am just so happy that I survived to be given a second chance. Today is marking my rebirth, my second chance.'
The love and understanding he has found at NA has been key to Shahram's recovery. 'This is my refuge,' he says as his friends come up to congratulate him, hugging and kissing him. 'I get energy from the support I get here. If I have any problems, I go to a meeting and people help me. Before I came here, I couldn't even say out loud that I was an addict. Now I know myself.'
In keeping with NA policy,
the addicts have to go through the arduous process of detoxing without any
medicinal help, and they spend the first month living in the centre. They are
encouraged to donate around £25 to the running of the centre, otherwise
treatment is free. A few stops away on the metro line, I visit
I enter a small courtyard filled to bursting with men, queuing. The queue snakes up stairs leading to a gallery where, from small window, methadone is handed out. I head up the steps, turn instead into a small office, also packed to bursting with people, desks and stacks of boxes. The boxes contain a package of syringes, clean needles, tape, alcohol pads, condoms and distilled water, all handed out to addicts for free. As all those who drop in every day - up to 600 people, mostly men but a handful of women too - are all homeless, the basic care the centre provide is vital, giving out food, clean clothes and even a shower. There is always a GP on hand to provide medical attention, including wound and abscess management - many of the addicts are suffering from diseases such as Hepatitis and HIV and have weeping sores on their bodies from their diseases and the hardship of their lifestyles. The care pack is designed to make sure those injecting at least do so hygienically and safely. Those registered for the syringe package have to bring back the used syringe before they can get another package. 'It's part of the education,' he says, 'And we don't want the streets littered with used needles.'
The team consists of
doctors, a psychiatrist and an outreach team that takes the same packages out
into the community - one worker tells me that he gives 60 condoms a day to just
one prostitute working the park nearby. Although officially illegal in
Like NA, most of
Below the office there is a
day room where people can drink tea and talk; lunch is offered on alternate
days. 'There is such a need for what we are doing,' Dr Nassirimanesh, the
founder, says. 'We have enough people who want to work, enough people needing
treatment. What we don't have enough of is funding. Get me funding and we will
A comment by Ayatollah Hassan Marashi, who previously served on the High Council for Judicial Development and in the judiciary, illustrates the change of heart of the regime. Talking of drug dealers, he told an Iranian newspaper that many become dealers out of economic necessity, and that arresting and imprisoning them proves counterproductive as families then sink deeper into poverty and sometimes turn to prostitution. 'Punishment does not correct people's behavior,' he said. 'We pay no attention to the causes and we merely pursue the effects.'
Ehterami, an official at
I ask Dr Nassirimanesh
about the government's approach, which is one of the most enlightened in the
world. Recently addicts were invited to present themselves at police stations
and health care centres to undergo voluntary treatment and rehabilitation, in
return for amnesty from arrest and prosecution. About half of the annual budget
allotted to fighting drugs now goes towards harm reduction. 'The government is
taking the four pillar approach, same as countries such as
As an Iranian who has grown
up in the
There is quiet consensus
among people working on the frontline of this problem that it has not yet
peaked. Talking to Hamid, one of the young addicts in the centre, he tells me:
'The kids up there in the north of
Alcohol, which is illegal
in this dry Islamic state, can also be easily bought on the black market, but as
Hamid rightly indicates, alcohol is not cheap - a bottle of red wine of the sort
you might pick up at your local off licence for $10, will set you back $40 in
Tehran - a professional such as a teacher earns around $350-$400 per month. And
while different punishments for drinking, making or possessing alcohol are
minutely set out in religious rulings that govern Iran, there are no specific fatwas given about narcotics, and so the
laws on drugs have struggled to find a religious foundation - the most common
one used is issued by Ayatollah Khomeini and states that 'one is not allowed to
harm oneself'. The harshest punishment of execution can be meted out to
holding more than 30 grams of heroin or 5 kilograms of opium, and the much of
the Iranian prison population comprises those arrested for drug offenses; of
46,930 imprisoned in December-January 2006, 31 per cent were addicts, with a
further 40 per cent arrested on drug-related offences, according to Justice
Minister Jamal Karimirad. But the high rate of HIV infection in prisons, through
shared needles, is one of the factors that has persuaded the government to adopt
a less punitive approach to tackling drug addiction. Although there are no firm
statistics, according to Hamidreza Setayesh, UNAIDS country officer for
Up in the centre of town, I drop in on another drug rehabilitation centre, another NGO with another approach. Aftab is located on a quiet street and looks much like a regular house. With its bright blue painted banisters and doorframes, Aftab has a detoxification ward upstairs where addicts pay to be weaned off drugs, and offices downstairs used for outpatient meetings. Dr Masood Sedghy says that of the addicts he sees here, 80 per cent of them are addicted to crack. 'Most of the people we treat are poor, but we do have some middle class patients and even some from the rich section of society.' But he points out that many of the rich users prefer shisheh meaning glass, methamphetamine or crystal meth, so called after the glass pipe that it is smoked out of. And with house prices, drug prices are geographically sensitive, as you head further uptown, the drugs of choice become more expensive with one gram of crystal meth costing around $120, a huge expense in the Islamic Republic.
In 2005 the director of the Iranian National Centre for Addiction Studies estimated that 20 per cent of Iran's adult population was 'somehow involved in drug abuse' and an official survey, whose findings were released in 2005, showed that drug smuggling and sales in Iran was a 10 billion dollar market in 2004, nearly three quarters of the total revenue from Iran's oil market during the same period.
Southern Tehran, where
More than 50 per cent of the Iranian population lives under the poverty line, according to official estimates provided by the Iranian Central Bank (although again it has been suggested by members of Iran's parliament that the reality is 90 per cent), which sets the poverty line at an income of around $300 per month for a family of five.
A government poll showed
that 80 per cent of Iranians believe that there is a direct link between
unemployment and drug abuse, something I heard reiterated constantly. The
Shahram had said
to me in Rey. 'The police are more likely to fine people than arrest them,' he
said. 'Partly because the attitudes to addiction have changed, it has become so
common that everyone realises it is a problem so they don't treat it so harshly.
But also, well, people are very poor...' Shahram does not say so and nor does
anyone I speak to, but I have heard of dealers bribing local police to allow
them to work their patch. Unlike in the south up here in the north of the city,
no-one goes to the local park to score. I have heard that in
With so much
attention inside and outside the country fixed on
... Payvand News - 6/4/07 ... --