Monday, July 12, 2004

Quiet revolution as Iran widens arsenal in war on drugs

Yahoo! News - Quiet revolution as Iran widens arsenal in war on drugs: "Quiet revolution as Iran widens arsenal in war on drugs

TEHRAN (AFP) - Iran has tried almost everything in its war on drugs: digging huge trenches along its porous borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan (news - web sites) and even using helicopter gunships and tanks against well-armed traffickers.

On the Islamic republic's television screens, Iranians are bombarded with campaigns highlighting the ills of addiction, dealers are executed and anyone even caught consuming drugs risks imprisonment, lashings and heavy fines.


"The anti-drugs war carried out by the Iranian police is unique," boasted counter-narcotics tsar Mehdi Abuie as he poured out the latest figures on seizures, arrests and killings near Iran's long borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The tough policy, however, appears to be failing.

Alongside the statistics that recount regular narcotics seizures, the figures that two million Iranians use drugs and 200,000 inject are stubbornly refusing to budge.

Furthermore, a trip to the impoverished ghettoes of south Tehran reveals the rock-bottom prices asked by dealers in heroin, opium or hashish.

One dealer, who would only introduce himself as Reza, said he sold a daily fix of heroin for just 20,000 rials, or a little over two dollars, while almost the same daily fix for opium costs 70,000 rials, almost eight dollars.

"I have no problem to pay for it," noted Moslem, a 28-year-old customer who said the price difference encouraged him to switch from opium to heroin, a habit he started to keep him awake in his textile job.

Elsewhere in the Shush neighbourhood of the sprawling capital, derelict buildings are littered with used and dirty needles and syringes -- evidence of an impending public health catastrophe.

Faced with an HIV (news - web sites)/AID and hepatitis B epidemic, Iran has been undergoing a quiet revolution in its attitude to addiction -- in the shape of a small charity called Persepolis, named after the ancient capital of the Persian empire.

For just around a year, the family-run NGO has been operating a backstreet "drop-in centre" for addicts in Shush, providing clean needles and even methadone to scores of users every day.

"We get around 100 addicts a day. After they register, they receive breakfast, warm food, shampoo, methadone and a special drug-use package," says the center's manager Abdolrazaq Ruhi.

Blood tests and even hospitalisation are also on offer in the "harm reduction" effort -- something the centre backs up with counselling as a first step toward kicking the habit.

"The personal drug-use package is the only way to stop transmission of hepatitis and HIV," Ruhi explained. "Patients are obliged to return used syringes to stop sharing them."

Despite the presence of the centre, the official policy in Iran remains that drug addicts are criminals and should be locked away -- even if the overcrowded prison system is notorious for perpetuating or encouraging drugs use.

But there are signs that the authorities -- who had all but abandoned the idea of rehabilitation several years ago -- are starting to come around.

"Six years ago, the health ministry and welfare organisations closed down the rehabilitation camps, and there was no other place for us to keep the addicts except jails," Abuie explained.

But with drug use rife in prisons, he said addicts were now being seen "as criminals who need to be healed" -- a subtle change to what has up to now been a no-nonsense police policy of giving users as hellish a time as possible.

"We will try to reopen those camps," Abuie said.

But even if the government-funded rehab centres do reopen, Persepolis head Arash Peyberah said the change in attitude still had a long way to go -- given that rounding up users and stuffing them with pills was more about beautifying Tehran than treating a problem.

And addicts who queue up in Shush see the authorities as far from trustworthy -- especially for women.

"Women don't dare to show themselves in public along with male addicts," said Mahin, a 54-year-old former hairdresser who is now homeless, on heroin and a client of the Persepolis centre. "But here it is so relaxed.""

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