In Iran, a junkie's fix is cheaper than a bottle of milk
TEHRAN, Iran, December 3, 2000(AFP) - It's cheaper for a heroin junkie in Iran to shoot up than it is to buy a bottle of milk.
That is the lament of Behrouz Meshkini, vice president of an organization that treats addicts and runs public awareness campaigns and who is facing an up-hill battle in Iran, particularly among the young.
Drugs are cheap because Iran is next door to Afghanistan, one of the world's leading producers of opium, from which heroin is derived.
The pervasiveness and cheapness of drugs have provoked a dramatic increase in drug addiction, leaving Iranian authorities to face a problem that affects all layers of society.
There are two million drug addicts in a population of 60 million, and 75 percent of the prison population is in jail for drug abuse or trafficking.
Iran is facing an unprecedented social crisis, with many Iranian sociologists saying widespread drug addiction has become a very common social phenomenon.
Not a day goes by without a drug-related story making the television news headlines. Addiction is now blatant on people's faces, especially in the lower working class.
In the south Tehran quarter of Maulavi, a gramme of heroin goes for as little as 3,000 rials (40 US cents).
Available in all the coutry's major cities, heroin, as well marijuana, opium and chireh -- a brown residue obtained from smoked opium -- are cheaper than milk or bread.
The "cheap drugs" plague is now affecting schools.
"Fifty-five percent of addicts say they started taking drugs between the age of 17 and 22", says Meshkini, vice president of the Organization of Social Well-Being.
In an interview published Saturday in the reformist newspaper Karo-Kargar, Meshkini explains that social difficulties at school and in the family circle are turning more and more youths into junkies.
According to some sociologists, Iran's prohibition on alcohol has driven youths towards drugs. Opium, the most popular drug in Iran, is radically cheaper than a bottle of foreign spirits.
Authorities in Tehran are leading a campaign against drug traffickers, to try to reverse a situation that is devastating the entire Iranian society. In the past eight months, 41,000 people were arrested in the capital alone for drugs offences, but it is clear that the problem of cheap drugs has to be fought at the Afghan border.
In the past few weeks, fighting intensified between the Iranian army and drug traffickers in Iran's two eastern provinces, which border Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iranian soldiers killed 20 drug traffickers and freed two hostages on Friday, during an anti-drug operation near eastern Iran's border with Afghanistan.
Commenting on what has been an escalating round of violence between smugglers and authorities, the government was quoted Saturday as saying 100 people identified as bandits and drug traffickers had been killed in clashes over the past two weeks in eastern Iran.
The Shiite Muslim state of Iran is a major transshipment point for drugs headed to markets in the Gulf, central Asia and Europe. The government regularly blames the Sunni Taliban militia, which now controls most of Afghanistan, for the region's heavy drug trade.
Two weeks ago, Iran's armed forces deployed a battalion of troops near the border with Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight the flow of narcotics into the country. In addition to the mobile battalion, the armed forces commander-in-chief, General Mohammad Salimi announced on Nov 14, that the army will expand its air bases and build other new ones in the country's eastern region.
In May, the Iranian parliament approved a bill for an "anti-drug wall" along the 940 kilometer-long (582 miles) border with Afghanistan.