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Iran's addicts are ignored in west's war on drug traffickers

By Geneive Abdo
The Guardian Observer

THERAN, Iran, December 2, 1999 - Britain has taken the lead in an aggressive international campaign to aid Iran's battle to stop drug smuggling across its borders. But local doctors and sociologists complain that western governments are ignoring growing drug addiction inside the country.

Sir John Kerr, undersecretary of state in the foreign office, announced here this week that Britain has donated 1.15m to help Iran fight drug traffickers. Most of it will go towards United Nations anti-drug efforts, and a small portion direct to Tehran.

In March Britain lifted its 20-year ban on the export of security equipment to Iran, agreeing to provide 300,000 for 1,020 bullet-proof vests to help border guards fight smugglers crossing into Iran from Afghanistan.

In June the UN office for drug control and crime prevention opened a branch in Tehran, and the agency's executive director announced that $13m would would go to Iran to combat drug smuggling.

But western states are contributing for their own benefit. Drugs smuggled into Iran from Afghanistan (where most heroin sold on Britain's streets originates), and Pakistan, end up in Europe.

International efforts have accelerated after a drug gang killed at least 36 Iranian anti-narcotics agents in a shootout on November 3. In October three Portuguese were freed after three weeks held hostage by traffickers. In August, a notorious gang took four European tourists and one Iranian hostage near the Pakistani border. A deal was struck, and they were freed.

But while western governments seek to decrease drug sales in Europe, a growing number of Iranians are addicted to opium and heroin.

"If alcohol were available, more people would use that, but it will never be legalised in this country," said Emran Razzaghi, a psychiatrist who heads Iran's main drug prevention organisation.

"The government used to think that by reducing the supply the problem would go away. But in our opinion, the problem of internal use will never end. The only thing we can do is reduce it."

In a society defined by religious morality, fighting drug use has unusual obstacles. There are efforts to press senior Islamic clerics to issue a statement that drugs are as forbidden in Islam as alcohol.

There are officially an estimated 1-3m drug users in Iran, out of a population of 60m. But experts treating patients say actual numbers are much higher. Some 60-70% of drug users take opium, 10-15% heroin, and 5-10% marijuana.

Recent studies indicate that one in three divorces is due to drug use, which in Iran has stemmed from the vast rural migration to cities. An estimated 40% of city dwellers have close roots in the countryside and face life without family networks or emotional support.

A privately funded drug hotline, Tehran Call, was recently set up, and is encouraging people generally unaccustomed to discussing personal problems with strangers to seek help.

The Iranian government this year allocated $13.3m for prevention and treatment. In the past three years, it has funded centres in seven of Iran's two dozen provinces, with five additional drug treatment units planned. But the funding makes only a small dent.

At one centre in Tehran drug users gather at 3pm each day with Mohammed Reza Abdulahi. One pleaded to be admitted into the programme, which is already overcrowded.

"I am here for the first time," the man said. "For years I had an injury from the [Iran-Iraq] war. I took medication, but it didn't stop the pain, so I began using opium eight years ago. One year ago, I started trying to give it up. But I need help."

Tehran's parks used to be popular for young people, parents and children. But in many districts, residents say they are threatened by drug dealers.

"I live in a small apartment and my children need to go outside everyday," said Shahia Khazeni. "Every afternoon I have to drive 24 kilometres to a park that is safe. I can't take them out here. The area is full of drug addicts. So, soon we are leaving this district."