The illicit drugs trade in Iran has shaped countless lives, exacerbated by punitive and misguided policies that have left some of society’s most vulnerable in the cold. In an exclusive new series for IranWire, academic Dariush Farahani lifts the lid on an under-reported contemporary crisis.
The aim of this series is to provide an insight into the drugs trade in Iran, including the impact of government policy on the drugs market, and to give a voice to marginalized communities affected by drugs that have been demonized in the media and public discourse.
Across the world and not least in Iran, drug users have been criminalized, stigmatized and treated as sick and malformed elements on the margins of society — a stance that strips them of their humanity and justifies harsh interventions into their lives. In recent years the so-called global “War on Drugs” has been questioned by an increasing number of actors. New human-centered and human rights-oriented policies and interventions are urgently needed to protect the rights of these individuals, and to prevent drug policy from further exacerbating violence, insecurity, and poor health outcomes in affected communities.
This series brings the global drug policy debate to Iran. We begin with an exploration of global drug policy before examining Iranian domestic drug policy in closer detail. Follow-up articles take in the breadth of drug users’ lived experiences in Iran and the haphazard management by government and civil society actors, based on interviews with people in Iran affected by drugs, be it as a user of opium, heroin or methamphetamine (shisheh), or by their involvement in the production, trafficking or distribution of illegal substances.
Once a covert phenomenon, urban drug markets or patoghs now operate in the open in cities across Iran. In his latest article for IranWire, Dariush Farahani joins a group of outreach workers on the front line of a humanitarian crisis.
Many of the most vulnerable and under-supported drug users frequent open-air drug markets scattered across urban areas in Iran. Known as patoghs, these spaces take different forms. Some are more formal and well-established, with clearly delineated boundaries: a parking lot behind an urban train station, for instance. Some feature makeshift stalls used by resident drug dealers: a sheet of plywood, perhaps, on top of cinder blocks forming a table. There are spaces for drug users to sit down to use drugs, either out in the open or behind some rudimentary form of cover, such as a sheet sprung up between trees.
There are markets that are relatively stable, which remain in the same place for longer periods of time as police either cannot or do not want shut them down, with micro-communities that have formed around them. Others are more itinerant, shifting across urban spaces and popping up as rapidly as they are disbanded. Though most city residents may not be aware of their presence, these markets have proliferated across Tehran and other cities: next to major roads, highways, under bridges, and in city parks, facilitating both the supply of drugs and dealers’ escape during intermittent police raids.
These markets are used by the very poorest. Those that frequent them may not have a stable home, cannot afford to pay couriers to deliver to them or lack access to more “upmarket” dealers. The patoghs afford these individuals a sense of community and a social safety net in the absence of other support.
To understand these spaces, I join a group of harm reduction outreach workers on their regular shifts at the drug markets. These workers hand out donations in the form of clothes and food, but also give out clean needles, injecting equipment and other items that drug users need to safely consume. A nurse or paramedic also provides on-the-ground primary care such as abscess treatment. Their humanitarianism is vital to many street drug users’ survival.
This group’s base of operations is in southern Tehran. They regularly attend between 10 and 20 different patoghs, some of which routinely pop up and disappear, but most of which remain in the same stable location.
The van is filled with supplies, including clean syringes, bandages and wound disinfectant solution, along with some food: bread and white cheese. Today the volunteers have no clothes to hand out as donations have been slow.
This is the morning shift. All of the outreach workers, save for the paramedic who joins us today, explain that they are former drug users themselves. The State Welfare Organization provides this group with only nominal funding, severely limiting a service that could, with full resourcing, provide food and supplies to up to 500 people a day.
“I am 27 but have the life experiences of a 60-year-old”
The first patogh we attend is located behind a bus terminal in southern Tehran, tucked behind residential buildings on a large patch of undeveloped land. It is dust-laden, with plastic strewn about.
People gather around the van as soon as it pulls up. I am told that there are usually between 60-80 people in this patogh alone. Drug users reach through the windows of the van with their hands.
A woman asks: “Do you have any clothes?” The answer, to the disappointment of many, is “No, not today.” People beg for food, but the workers are unable to hand it out here as supplies are limited and they have to rotate distribution between several patoghs. A second group gathers around the van asking for syringes and injecting equipment. Around 20 syringes are handed out in as many seconds. Injecting users, it is explained to me, are looked down on in the patogh and face the worst stigmatization even within their own community.
We pull up at the second patogh. This one is situated between residential houses in a park, and operates in the middle of the day. Sitting around the children’s playground is about 20 people, mostly consuming heroin and shisheh [methamphetamine]. We grab one of the bags with bread and cheese and I am introduced to some of the drug users.
The first man I speak to is 47 years old, but looks like he is in his late 60s. He buys and sells small things in order to afford his davaab: heroin.
A second man by the name of Hashem stands by his side, eager to talk. He is 27 years old but looks closer to 40.
“For 10 years I have been using drugs,” he tells me. “Eight years using heroin, and three to four using shisheh.I don’t smoke shisheh anymore; it makes me crazy. I started smoking it to be able to work, but I also smoked with my girlfriend for sex. Shisheh is amazing for sex, but many also smoke it to be able to wake up, to function.
“I felt stronger when I used. I’ve been to jail more than seven times, but never for more than a month. There are many drugs in jail. Even one toke is enough in there; it has the wanted effect. We need a place we can go where all services are there. They could make heroin coupons, for example, like the opium coupons during the Shah’s days.”
“I am now 27-years-old,” he adds, “but I swear I have the life experiences of a 60-year-old.”
One of the outreach workers, Afshin, interjects and tells me that Hashem would like to have a more focused heart-to-heart. Hashem indicates a bench a few meters away, next to the children’s swings. But as we begin to walk over, all of a sudden, a man yells: “Don’t sit there — tablo hast [it’s too obvious]!”.
This man is the patogh’s dealer. He had not wanted us to go and sit on the bench to — he assumed — use drugs too far from the group, as it could alert the public and lead to police being called. He later apologizes for the mistake.
Hashem tells me: “I know a lot for my age. I have been to jail and to the abstinence camp 15 times, only twice by force. It is extremely hard quitting shisheh. I couldn’t sleep for 10 days. After four days of lying down, the only thing I wanted to do was make the pain go away.”
Finding work and stability, he says, is complicated. “I need family, recreation, NA [Narcotics Anonymous] meetings. And you need to be ready to open yourself up in the meetings, to not flee from your life and your family anymore. You need a sponsor, a friend who is close to you and can support you.
“I don’t agree with all of NA. It is antiquated. You need to want to get clean to stay clean, to decide for yourself, and have the support around you. If you take 1000 people by force to camps and abstinence meetings it serves no purpose; nothing is solved by force. We have very sensitive hearts, we drug users.”
Reflecting on his family life, he adds: “We weren’t poor. There was money and my family were well off. My father bought my school degree, he tried helping me and still does with money when I need it. But I didn’t have support: a brother. If I had a brother like you, I wouldn’t have gone after this. I started using with my female partner, and I became stuck.”
After 30 minutes or so of conversation, Hashem thanks me profusely. He needed to share the pain in his heart, he tells me, and one day he hopes to return the favor by bringing me to his family’s farm in northwestern Iran one day. We embrace and say goodbye.
Would Safe Houses Work in Iran?
Back at the van, the first bag of bread and cheese is already finished. The outreach workers are discussing the status of the patoghs. They argue that the cause of all of this goes back to the government, and its lack of care and compassion for these people.
We move on to the concept of controlled consumption rooms. In Switzerland and some other countries, I point out, safe spaces are provided for drug users to use under the care of medical professionals. They have food to eat, and games to play. I ask for their opinions of this, and whether they think it could be instituted in Iran.
Afshin is dismissive. “That would require collaboration between government departments,” he says. “This does not exist. The government agencies do not work with each other at all. There were talks about consumption rooms between ministries recently, and they couldn’t decide on who the people working in there should be; should the staff be ex-users? Or current ones? Or from a ministry? And so on. As such, the idea was abandoned.”
Our next stop is another large bus terminal, where we buy ice cream before exploring the next patogh. A very old man who walks using a cane and cannot stand upright comes up to the car asking for food. The workers ask if he’s happy to talk with me. He says that he is, and so we help him climb up the steps.
“I am over 70 years old,” the man tells me. “I have been using drugs for the past 25 years, and sleep on the streets. The only relationship I have with the government is when the police take me by force to the abstinence camps.
“They take us to these camps for two to three months, we quit using, we are let out, and we have nowhere to go. Each time I get out I go back to my friends. For three to four days I am able to stay clean and not use, but then I start again. If I had work, if they helped us with employment, with somewhere to stay, it would be different.”
A Situation Made Worse by Poverty, Sanctions and Inflation
It is now almost noon. The man, Farzad, has been given some thin white bread with a bit of white cheese to eat.
“When I come out from the camp,” he reflects, “I have nothing. I’ve had to steal out of hunger; if I had money I wouldn’t steal. I have had nothing to eat since yesterday. Hunger has no law. What someone like me needs when they slip is a hand. If I don’t get a helping hand, I will fall headfirst."
I hold his hand as he makes his painstaking way back down the steps, with great difficulty.
In a small plaza outside the train station drug users are selling various items. Cigarette packets, old clothes, and other small objects are spread out on old blankets on the ground. This is how they earn their bread for the day, and how they pay for their drugs: bought from one of the other street vendors, who is also a dealer and user himself. The drugs are consumed right there, or behind the small bus drivers’ rest house.
We return to the van and start driving away. As we do, we pass bus stops at the terminal where drug users sit and rest. Next to the stops, among the trees, small groups of users sit and consume.
The paramedic in the van, Houshang, has a university degree and is passionate about his work. He is 40 years old and could only afford to marry three years ago. Houshang, who comes from a province near the Iraqi border, had applied to work at different hospitals all around Tehran but was never granted one because, he says, he did not have “parti”: a patron or connection. He has now worked for this organization for about a year, earning less than one million toman a month.
“It’s so hard,” he says. “Suicide in Iran has increased significantly; there are no jobs. The first thing they ask you when you’re looking for a job in the hospital is: ‘Who do you know here?’.
“We would have to not eat for years to afford a car. A Pride car cost 20 million tomans last month — now it is 40 million.”
All three outreach workers predict that the more poverty and inflation increases in Iran due to increased sanctions, the more people will lose hope, and the more drug users there will be on the streets. Unemployed and without identity cards or documentation, these people cannot apply for jobs.
The van parks up next to a large boulevard, with a park running between the two lanes. Here, a group of about 50 people is sitting and using drugs.
“Security is better here for the users,” Afshin explains. “If the police come from one side, they can flee to the other side, crossing the street. The police are not allowed to chase them across the street in case someone is hit by a car. If someone died they would have questions to answer, so they are more reluctant to chase.
“Women have to sell themselves for drugs here. There is no other way for them to pay.”
A man carrying an enormous sack filled with plastic bottles on his back pokes his head through the window. “What do you have?” he says. Asked what he wants, he replies “Anything,” and is handed some bread.
I ask Afshin why he first started working in this field. Some years ago, he says, the store he ran collapsed and he was bankrupted, losing everything. Afshin himself was addicted to drugs, but got clean seven years ago and has now dedicated himself to outreach work in patoghs around Tehran.
“The government does not care about the work we do,” he says. “Nor do we have any work security, or acceptable salaries. But... what else can we do?”
Next in the series: On the afternoon shift, Dariush Farahani hears further heart-rending testimonies from penniless drug users supported by under-funded outreach groups in Tehran.
Also in the series: