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Friday, 7 June, 2002, 15:15 GMT 16:15 UK
Iran's battle with heroin
Drug addicts in Zahedan
Many addicts feed their habit by dealing themselves

Javad and his friends are among an officially estimated two million Iranians now taking drugs, giving the country one of the highest addiction rates in the world.

As his wife and some of his seven children look on with a mixture of contempt and amusement, he and two fellow addicts crouch in a sordid, grimy room and "chase the dragon" - junkie jargon for inhaling the fumes from heroin heated over foil.

I'm too embarrassed to ask anyone for help any more - everyone is using drugs

wife of addict
"I took refuge in drugs, hoping they would calm me down and make things better but I'm even more miserable now," he says, slurring his words.

"I use heroin. This is my life..."

Javad has gone looking for jobs but says they always turn him down.

His wife Maryam has had enough. She interrupts with a torrent of vituperation.

"Miserable people like us should just die at home from hunger or thirst," she says.

"I'm too embarrassed to ask anyone for help any more. Everyone is using drugs. The government should put a stop to it."

Border war on drugs

The Iranian Government is increasingly enlisting the support of non-government organisations (NGOs) to combat demand for narcotics.

It is partly a problem of availability.

Iranian border police in Baluchistan
Some drugs will always find a way across the border
Iran straddles a major smuggling route to the West from neighbouring Afghanistan, the world's largest producer of opium and its derivatives, morphine and heroin.

So drugs are plentiful here, and cost a lot less than replacement therapy.

Iran's long and mountainous eastern border with Afghanistan and Pakistan is virtually impossible to seal.

More than 3,200 members of the Iranian security forces have died in clashes with drug traffickers and every year, tons of narcotics are seized but optimistic estimates are that only about 30% of the inflow may be being intercepted.

Cutting demand

"Even if we built a steel wall all around the country, drugs would find a way in, as long as there's a demand for them," admits General Mohammad Fallah, head of Iran's Drug Control Headquarters (DCHQ).

The new emphasis on trying to curb demand, while keeping up the struggle to halt the supply.
Anti-heroin mural in Zahedan
An anti-drug propaganda campaign is under way

"In our new budget, about 50% is allocated for demand reduction activities," says Mejid Derakhshan, head of the DCHQ's cultural section.

The DCHQ has sponsored a series of hard-hitting TV advertisements and is waging an information campaign in schools and universities.

It is also setting up a special new department to co-ordinate with the NGOs.


One NGO, the Anti-Addiction Association, was set up by a woman MP, Soheila Jelodarzadeh, who compares the problem to cancer.

"Addiction is much more dangerous than cancer, because it spreads exponentially," she says.

Students listen to anti-narcotics lecture at Azad University
The focus is on cutting demand
"To sustain his habit, an addict has to sell drugs to at least 10 other people."

The Association, and other NGOs such as Narcotics Anonymous and the Aftab (Sunshine) Society, provide a humane and enlightened refuge for addicts who want to try to shed their habit.

"Here, they treat you with respect, not like some sort of criminal," says Saeed, who was a serious addict for 12 years until he went to the association.

Hossein Dejakam, the former addict who set up the Aftab Society, believes a lack of professional expertise is one of the factors inhibiting the struggle to stem the spread of abuse.

"We don't have a single expert on addiction," he says.

Positive trend

Drug control authorities are alarmed that in addition to the traditional poppy-based narcotics from Afghanistan, synthetic drugs are also starting to appear on the Iranian scene from other sources.

But supply and availability also have an impact in creating demand, says Antonio Mazzitelli, Iran representative of the UN's Drug Control Programme (UNDCP).

Iran had been bracing for a renewed flood of narcotics, because poppy cultivation resumed in Afghanistan this spring.

Ironically, in this respect Iran was better off with the Taleban as neighbours, because they imposed a successful ban on cultivation last year.

But the expected new influx has not yet happened - perhaps because the narcotics are being refined and sent to the West via more northerly routes which bypass Iran.

The UNDCP's Antonio Mazzitelli is cautiously optimistic that if the supply situation remains restricted and efforts to curb demand are redoubled, Iran's drug crisis could start to turn around.

"If this supply trend continues at least one or two more years, we will start to record a dramatic reduction in drug abuse and in new drug abusers in Iran," he says.

The BBC's Jim Muir
"The deadly flow continues"
The drugs trade

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