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.
In a second in-depth exposition of the urban drug markets of Tehran, Dariush Farahani hears the stories of some of the city’s most vulnerable drug users and reflects on the lamentable lack of support offered to them by the government.
The afternoon shift of a group of outreach workers providing essential aid to the urban drug markets, or patoghs, of southern Tehran is underway. Now occupied only by the driver, the paramedic, the second shift manager and myself, our van pulls up at a park next to one of the city’s main motorways. Here, roughly 100 drug users are consuming shisheh (methamphetamine) and heroin under the cover of trees.
A 52-year-old man is the first to speak with us. He sits down on the blanket we have spread out and takes a piece of bread with cheese. Amirali has been using drugs for 15 years —mostly heroin, he tells us. For the last 10 years he has been sleeping here in the park.
“I am alone now, but I have three children,” he says. “At first I smoked heroin to feel good. Now I smoke heroin to be able to get up and walk. I have been to a treatment camp once; I was forced in there for three months and 20 days under the law. Some of the women in the camp next to ours were kept there for up to six months.”
Heroin, he tells us, costs about 25,000 tomans for a gram. Methamphetamine, or shisheh, is more expensive: 100,000 to 120,000 tomans per gram. He shrugs off the idea of using methadone, often prescribed as an opioid substitute: “I think methadone is worse than heroin. I only use it if I can’t get access to heroin.”
The second man to join us is known as Milad. He is a former national martial arts champion and trainer of Iran’s national team. He has been using drugs for the last 20 years.
“I started with opium, with friends outside the gym,” he says. “It started for recreation but I slowly drowned in it. I have four children, and two grandchildren. I really do want to put this aside.
“The forced camps have no purpose in helping us quit. I really don’t want to use; it takes away my will. I still sleep at home sometimes. Thank God my wife has not divorced me.
“The government has done nothing for me. They sometimes tell police to go and get 10 addicts to show they’ve done some work that day. So they come to the park, handcuff us and round us up, laughing at us.
“They took me to the police station yesterday. We were just stood talking, not using, when the police came. They brought us to the station for two to three hours before we signed the papers and they let us go. They did this just to bother us.
“If my family knew about this side of my drug use, and that the police keep taking me away, they would be very sad.”
Women Drug Addicts Turn to Prostitution
A woman, Kimia, sits down on the blanket and agrees to answer a few questions. She is 38 years old but looks like she is in her late 50s and, she tells us, has been using drugs for 15 years.
“I’ve been to treatment camps many times,” she says, “but it didn’t help. I divorced and started smoking shisheh. I was forced to go to a treatment camp by my family but as soon as I came out, I started using again.”
Kimia adds: “I do different things to get money. It has been five years since I was last home...”
She is anxious to leave as a car has pulled up and the driver is honking the horn, signaling for her to get in. The outreach workers later tell me that this is one of her customers. In this patogh, the group tries to help women to access either cash or drugs to stop them having to sell themselves.
Another woman aged just 30, Setayesh, joins us. She has been using shisheh and heroin for the last nine years and says she was “tricked” into it.
“My husband was a drug user, our home burned down and our children were taken by the State Welfare Organization,” she says. “My husband used to smoke heroin to get calm.
“Sometimes I see my two children at the State Welfare Organization where they keep the children. I have no contact with my family; I don’t want them to know what I am doing.”
Our van driver, Rashid, explains that many women in Iran begin by using shisheh as a weight loss aid. “Women are often given this for the first time at the beauty salons,” he says. “They are told it will get them thin.”
More and more people join the patogh. There are now roughly 150 people spread around the trees, with the occasional cloud of shisheh or heroin smoke rising overhead.
The next person to join us is a 54-year-old called Mehdi. He is a kind, courteous and well-spoken man who speaks in eloquent Persian. His wife died 13 years ago, he tells us, and after this he went bankrupt. A few years later he began using heroin, which he now pays for by carrying out odd jobs around the city. At most, he estimates, he can scrape 100,000 tomans per day, all of which is spent on buying drugs and supporting his daughter.
“I have not gotten high from my use really,” he says. “I just manage to sleep well. The sleep on drugs is good. Other than that, there are no real good sides to it.”
Twice, Mehdi says, he has been to government-sponsored drug treatment camps in Iran: once by force and once of his own volition. After a spell at a camp in Varamin he stayed clean for 13 months, but relapsed after spending time with his brother, who also uses drugs. “My dreams were broken, and I lost my hope,” he says.
Mehdi shows me a gold ring on his finger, which he says he found a couple of weeks ago. “I’ve been going around putting up flyers and notes to try and find its rightful owner,” he says. “No one has contacted me yet. If the owner is not found in a couple of months, only then will I sell it.
“I found someone’s phone the other day and called the dialler of a missed call on the screen to let them know. We met and I gave him the phone; I didn’t want to accept any money but he insisted I take 50,000 tomans as a finder’s fee.”
One Link at a Time
Rashid the driver, himself a recovered drug user, chimes in. “Let me tell you,” he says, “You truly have strength. My wife had this gold bracelet; I would sell it link by link to the local goldsmith. He would ask, ‘Why are you coming in with links?’. I lied and told him the bracelet had broken at home and bits of it had spread everywhere, and each time I found another piece I was bringing it to him.
“After a while my wife went to wear her bracelet. It was now quite a bit too short to go all the way around her wrist. She exclaimed, ‘Has has my arm gotten fat?’ and I told her, ‘Yes, it has’.” Amid the ensuing laughter, Rashid adds: “I truly did everything for drugs. Sold my children’s stuff, anything.”
Later, Rashid and I go for a walk around the park, carrying the sack of bread and cheese along with us. We approach a group of 30 to 40 users sat under the trees who are smoking shisheh using glass pipes, and heroin using a glass tube and aluminum foil. They heat up the foil with a cigarette lighter, having placed the heroin on top, then inhale the drug through the glass tube as it evaporates. Everywhere on the ground there are scraps of aluminum foil, along with other smoking paraphernalia and rubbish.
We walk among the groups, greeting them and handing out the bread. Most of the drug users keep themselves to themselves and do not acknowledge our presence, other than to briefly look up to ensure we are not the police.
Rashid talks to me about the hardships faced by these people. They are on the bottom rung of the social ladder, he says, and looked down on by everyone else. He points at some mountains in the distance where he says he himself used to go to consume. At the time, police would show up regularly and take them away. Nowadays the patoghs are out in the open and ubiquitous: in the parks, next to major roads, next to the bus and train stations.
Rashid is harshly critical of the government and its policy. The dormitory for the local municipal is based here in the park, and all of the workers, he says, are Afghan. The government hires Afghan refugees, Rashid claims, because they pay them salaries half of what Iranians earn. Indeed, I can only see Afghans around the building. We greet one another and exchange pleasantries.
Later on we find Milad, the former martial arts instructor, sat with a group of four people next to the motorway. One of his companions, a 25-year-old man, is heating the shisheh pipe. He has only been using drugs for a couple of months and is wary of our presence. Between tokes from the glass pipe, he picks the scabs on his hands.
Also sat with the group is a lady in her mid-30s. Next to her, on top of her handbag, is a rabbit on a makeshift leash made of plastic bags. They are eating some leftovers they have found in the park in addition to the bread we gave Milad earlier.
Suddenly a pickup truck honks its horn and reverses back up the motorway entry ramp, about 10 meters from where the group is sitting. “That’s my brother,” the woman says, and after a period of yelling back and forth she gathers up her possessions and gets into the truck, which drives off. After they have departed I am told it was not her brother, but one of her clients.
We walk back to the van after handshakes and well-wishes. Rashid tells me that after being “stuck” using for 17 years, he has now been clean for three. It is difficult, he says, but he has a loving wife and daughter, of whom he is most proud. But he is also sharply critical of the government for having fostered a desperate socio-economic environment in Iran, a country with vast wealth, of which practically nothing trickles down to its citizens – while drug addicts are held up as scapegoats.
“How can that be?” he exclaims. “We were at war with Iraq for eight years. They killed our children. They killed your friends and family members!” He points at the paramedic as we as we get back to the van. The paramedic is from a city near the Iraqi border that was heavily bombed during the war, including with chemical weapons. “Now, apparently,” he continues, “the Iraqis are our friends, our close allies, and so we give them our oil and electricity for free and send them money. Meanwhile, people are hungry in Iran. Our government sends our money and our resources to Yemen, to Iraq, to Syria, to Lebanon. What about us? What about Iran’s own people?”
As we part ways at the bus stop, I wonder how I will ever do justice to the stories of those I met today. These heroes are at the frontline of an ongoing humanitarian disaster playing out in urban environments across Iran, fighting for the lives of the cities’ “untouchables” — those no one else wants to see, let alone lend a hand to. The people in the patogh, with whom I shared bread and tea, welcomed me with open arms. The impression they have made on me will never be forgotten.
Next in the series: From a Tehran hospital to a countryside idyll, Dariush Farahani explores divergent attitudes to opium smoking in Iran.
Also in the series: