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Iran's festive drink and drugs binge

Nowruz clowns in central Tehran
Drugs and alcohol consumption increase heavily during the Nowruz holiday

By Faraj Balafkan
BBC Persian Service

As Iran celebrates their New Year festival, Nowrouz, some Iranians turn increasingly to drugs and liquor to get them in the party mood.

Nowrouz lasts for two weeks and many people travel to the lush jungles and seaside villas of northern Iran to escape the hustle and bustle of city life.

But where ever they go imported and home produced alcohol, from vodka to Saki, are imbibed along with kebabs.

During the month building up to Nowrouz police statistics show that on average more than 25,000 cans of alcoholic drinks and some 135,000 litres of home-made liquor are hauled across Iran. This is despite the country-wide ban on alcohol imposed under Sharia law.

And, of course, strong homemade alcohol can be particularly dangerous. The AFP news agency recently reported police saying that 10 people had died from drinking poisonous homemade alcohol in a northern Iranian province.

Smuggling

But most of the domestic thirst for spirits is quenched with booze smuggled from Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey.

It is transferred to Kurdish towns such as Erbil in northern Iraq and then carried over the border into Iran.

Once over the border, the final price varies according to how easy it was to negotiate the treacherous terrain of western Iran while avoiding police patrols.

In total, some 14 million litres of liquor are distributed in Iran each year, according to the special anti-smuggling task force which is supervised by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

This is despite the severe punishment for those caught committing offences related to alcohol.

An Iranian convicted of drinking on three separate occasions could face death by hanging. There is little chance of a pardon.

Turning to drugs

However the punishment for drug possession and abuse is not as harsh. Only convicted drug traffickers and wholesale sellers are usually hanged.

This has encouraged many heavy drinkers to turn to drug abuse, with the new derivatives such as crack (a solid form of cocaine that can be smoked), acid (lysergic acid diethylamide) and ice (Methamphetamine) becoming increasingly popular according to some experts.

During the last Iranian year, over 100 kg of ice was smuggled into Tehran, according to the city police; a rise of 250% on the previous year.

Poppy bulbs
34% of addicts in Iran use opium
26.6% use crack
19.2% use heroin

But this forms a small part of the total.

Anti-trafficking officials say that each year 2,500 tons of illicit drugs are smuggled into Iran from neighbouring Afghanistan.

In addition over 1,100 tons comes from European and Persian Gulf countries.

Opium has traditionally been the favourite drug among Iranian users according to official figures.

Millions of users

According to officials, Iran has 1.2 million addicts and 800,000 'recreational' users.

But NGOs say that the total number of drug users in Iran is as high as 5 million.

In recent years some NGOs have set up private clinics to treat addicts.

They charge anywhere between $500(£340) and $3,000 (£2,050) for treatment.

The government has its own drug rehabilitation camps, but some reports claim these have turned into key drugs distribution centres.

One drug user told the BBC Persian Service that many addicts have set up 'kitchens' or makeshift drug labs to independently produce acid-based drugs and these kitchens produce more drugs during Nowrouz. Prices also rise during the festive season.

Of course, many Iranian drinkers and drug takers feel they have a right to escape from their woes, at least momentarily and that Nowrouz provides the time to do so.

The police however have a different idea and say they are determined to combat illegal drug taking and drinking during the new year.



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