by Ramin Mostaghim
(IPS) TEHRAN -- Drug abuse among Iranian youth is going out of control, campaigners and residents here say, leaving many of those on the front line in the battle against narcotics trafficking and use frustrated, if not resigned to failure.
"Around five tonnes of opium and its byproducts are consumed daily in Tehran alone," said retired social worker Naser Ali Khani in an interview with IPS. Noting that the population in metropolitan Tehran is about 12 million, he said, "It is not difficult to calculate the per capita (rate of) illicit drug abuse in this tremendous city."
"You can imagine what is the total drug abuse all over the county," added Ali Khani, who served as the head of a now- closed rehabilitation camp for drug addicts located near the city of Qom, southwest of the capital.
The government estimates that there are two million drug addicts nationwide. But people who work in combating the drug problem find the official number unrealistically low, adding that the actual number of addicts is closer to seven million.
"I have lost my hope," Ali Khani said with a sigh. "Drug abuse is going wild and out of control. Honestly speaking, I do not think we can do anything to fight the increasing number of addicts in Iran."
The use of drugs has traditionally been tolerated within Persian society, particularly the consumption of hashish and opium by men middle age and older. Today, however, drug use is no longer an "old people's bad habit," as Hojjatuleslam Zam, former head of the Islamic Promulgation Centre, pointed out
"The pattern of the drug abuse has changed, and most of the addicts are young," he told IPS.
In the government's view, reiterated regularly by the state-run radio, television and print media, this shift has been caused by several factors: Iran's proximity to Afghanistan, which produces most of the world's supply of opium, the source of heroin; parental permissiveness; youth idleness; and family conflict.
Government officials also blame the influences of Western culture, including the Internet, where they say hallucinogenic drugs are readily available.
According to police, increased opium production in neighboring Afghanistan is the single greatest factor fueling drug abuse.
Drug production there has grown dramatically in the two years since the U.S.-led invasion overthrew the Taliban regime in 2001. Police say Iran's deep-rooted drug cartel is well-positioned to exploit this increased supply.
Ebrahim Tahmashi, a 34-year-old policeman in Tehran, said the government "officially has not left any stone unturned in tackling the menace of the narcotic drugs."
As evidence, he points to the more than 3,000 members of anti- drug forces who have been "martyred" in fighting with drug traffickers along the border with Afghanistan since 1979. This includes nine policemen killed in stand-offs with traffickers over the past three months.
The government's fight against drugs has taken a heavy toll, but "it has not worked," according to Tahmashi. He bases his claim on observations made while patrolling Laleh Park, near Tehran University. "I can recognise drug dealers. Look," he said, pointing to what he says are apparent addicts dealing drugs near the main entrance of the park.
Sohiela Afghami, a 34-year-old pharmacologist who owns a pharmacy in downtown Tehran, blames the persistence of drug abuse on the decision by health officials and law enforcement authorities to begin treating addicts as "patients" rather than as "criminals."
She pointed out that as a result of this change in approach instituted a few years ago, addicts can now get a doctor to prescribe detoxification medicine or a legal substitute for illicit drugs, such as methadone.
"We make money, general practitioners get their outpatients, but at the end of day ... (it) does not check the wild soaring rate of narcotics addiction in Iran," Afghami said, claiming that addicts just "refresh" themselves, going "off and on the wagon."
Addicts trying to kick their habit are also critical of the government's approach to treating drug abuse, but for other reasons. They believe officials provide insufficient support.
At Aftab (Sunshine) Society, a non-profit clinic founded by President Mohammad Khatami's office a year ago, Haddad Eatemadi complained, "They have only 17 beds here in the clinic to hospitalise addicts. You see, we need millions of beds."
The 30-year-old user, who, at his wife's urging is trying to quit using opium, also criticised the government for ending its subsidy of detoxification medicine, a move that has increased the financial burden on him and other addicts.
"For instance," he said, "in the first three days for detoxification, I need 30 pills of Naltroxone, which cost me 20,000 tomans (24 U.S. dollars)."
Drug addicts are increasingly turning to one another for assistance. In the basement of the Aftab Society, hundreds of drug addicts gather everyday at 7 p.m. to talk about their struggle to give up drugs. These free chats are guided by ex-addicts.
"About 50 guides are cooperating with the society," explained Ja'far Shamlou, a 34-year-old former hashish and opium user. "They relate their painful experience of gradual giving up the addiction to their addict friends."
On one recent evening, everybody in the basement spoke highly of Ja'far. "He is a big mentor who has suffered the agonies of withdrawal period," said Ahmad Akabari, a 36-year-old ex-green grocer who is trying to give up opium.
"That is the difference between him and a high-brow general practitioner who has not shared our pain," he told IPS.
Noting that "the highest number of addicts is found among 22 to 30 group age," the revered mentor said, "I do hope we can check the growth rate of the addiction by changing the attitude and daily routine structure of their lives, and rehabilitate them through self-help methods and by pushing them (into) books and athletic activities."
June 30, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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