Hooked in Iran, where addiction rates are world’s highest

The UN drug office estimates that 2.2% of the population are addicts

It's been three hours since Amir's last fix, and he's still high as a kite. The 28-year-old has been addicted to heroin and Iranian-made crystal methamphetamine, known as shisheh, for a decade. He lives in Darvazeh Ghar park, along with hundreds of other addicts, in poor south Tehran.

Amir’s saunter, permanent grin and easy laugh betray his drugged condition. His clothes are grimy, his shirt soaked in sweat. I ask how he survives. “Sometimes I do construction work. I sell things that the scavengers bring from north Tehran. The rich people throw out vacuum cleaners and appliances. We believe the one who gave us teeth will give us food as well.”

We talk on a bench on the edge of the park. A few metres away, three young men in their 20s are shooting up. Dealers zoom in on motorcycles, with a lookout for police. Wads of Iran’s devalued currency and small packets wrapped in cellophane or newspaper constantly exchange hands.

“I was a very good student,” Amir says. “I graduated from high school with honours. I started studying pharmacology at university, but they threw me out. It’s good to be smart and clever and curious, but if you use your curiosity in a bad way, you end up like me.”


‘Very upset’

Amir telephones his mother and married siblings every month. "They know I'm a drug addict and they're very upset. I don't tell them where I am. I ask, 'How's life with you?' and I lie and tell them that I'm in a good place and that I don't miss them." How long has it been since he's seen his mother, I ask. Amir pauses for a long moment. "Eight years!" He exclaims. He is laughing, but tears well up in his eyes. "I prefer not to talk about it," he says.

Amir is one of millions in Iran whose lives have been devastated by drug use. The UN drug office estimates that 2.2 per cent of the population are addicts, the highest addiction rate in the world. But Abbas Deylamizade, the director of Rebirth, Iran's largest non-governmental organisation (NGO) devoted to addiction treatment, believes up to five million Iranians are hooked, with millions more occasional users.

Smoking opium is a tradition. In Kerman, for example, guests are greeted with an opium pipe. Drug use affects all strata of Iranian society. I once interviewed an ageing intellectual whose friends gathered every day in his beautiful north Tehran home to smoke opium. The more dangerous shisheh is especially popular among youths. Amir pays 100,000 riyals (€2.50) for every fix of heroin or crystal meth.

The drugs come from neighbouring Afghanistan, which shares a 560-mile border with Iran. Afghanistan produced 5,500 tonnes of opium in 2013, making it the world’s leading source. The Iranians have built trenches, barbed wire fences and canals, but they are victims of their location on the transit route to Europe.

The government says it spends a billion dollars a year on its war on drugs, split between interdiction and prevention. Some 3,700 border guards and soldiers have lost their lives over the past three decades fighting drug traffickers. The Islamic Republic is lenient with users and severe with traffickers, who are often hanged. The UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran reported in March that up to 962 of the 1,539 Iranians executed since 2011 were traffickers.

Though Tehran receives praise for its interdiction efforts, and for the country’s extensive network of methadone clinics and needle exchanges, it receives a tiny fraction of the assistance given to countries such as Colombia. EU funding for treatment centres run by NGOs has sometimes been delayed because of economic sanctions.

Every two or three months, the authorities come come to Darvazeh Ghar park to round up the addicts and bus them to a treatment centre. Amir went once. Like most of the addicts, he returned three weeks later and resumed his habit. “I don’t want to stop,” he says. “If I stop taking drugs, I’ll suffer.”

Does Amir have any friends? “Everyone in the park is my friend,” he says. “Now you are my friend ... I help whomever I can. Not financially, but if I see someone crying I go to him and ask ‘why are you crying?’”

‘A gift of heroin’

Fifty-five-year-old Parastou has been hovering around as I talk to Amir. “We are all like this,” she says, looping one finger over another like a chain.

Parastou has been on and off drugs since the age of 15. “A boy who was in love with me gave me a bouquet of flowers with a gift of heroin,” she explains. “He lived with me for three years, but his parents didn’t like me and he left me.”

Parastou smoked her last pipe seven hours ago, and she’s getting edgy. She’s been locked out of her room because she can’t pay the rent, so her friend Nazila gave her some heroin. Most of the women in the park are prostitutes as well as drug addicts, she tells me.

People suddenly run past us, a torrent of glassy-eyed men that empties into the dusty streets around the park. “The police are here,” Parastou explains. “They say addicts are filthy. They don’t do anything to the dealers, because the dealers bribe them. They beat us because we have no money.”

Two guards bring up the rear of the stampede, brandishing truncheons. “They don’t bother the women,” Parastou says. She was once married and had five children. “My husband divorced me because I was an addict. The children stayed with him. They have their own lives. They don’t want to see me. They wish I would die.”

The only one of her children Parastou sees is a policeman in Darvazeh Ghar. “When he comes here to arrest people, he acts as if he doesn’t know me,” she says. “And I don’t show I’m his mother.”