The stunning paradox of Iran's war on drugs: How it actually makes America look worse

Iran regularly puts drug traffickers to death—but it also tests out progressive policies for treating drug addicts

Published November 20, 2015 12:58PM (EST)

  (AP/Ted S. Warren)
(AP/Ted S. Warren)

Situated between Afghanistan's extensive poppy fields and eager Western markets, Iran has an extensive history of domestic opium, alcohol, tobacco and cannabis use dating back centuries. In recent decades, heroin has become more popular. Most recently, the use of methamphetamine has exploded and is reportedly in demand across the social spectrum, from tired workers to women seeking weight loss.

"Cocaine has become a regular feature at parties among Tehran's richer residents; young people throughout the city smoke marijuana and pop ecstasy pills; opium – viewed as an older person's drug – is still widely considered to be culturally acceptable. In seedy corners of south Tehran, addicts gather to inject heroin, as they always have done. But when crystal meth hit the streets it managed to transcend social divides, and could be found everywhere in the city," The Guardian reports.

According to the AP, Iranian authorities say that "more than 2.2 million of Iran's 80 million citizens already are addicted to illegal drugs, including 1.3 million on registered treatment programs." The country is waging one of the world's most expensive and dangerous wars against drugs streaming across its 572-mile border with Afghanistan. Enormous quantities of opium and heroin have been seized. But the flow of drugs to their domestic market, and to Europe, has not been stopped.

In the West, Iran is often mischaracterized as a monolithic pariah state. The reality is more complicated. Iran's drug war, which frequently metes out death sentences for traffickers and has reportedly precipitated thousands of police deaths, reflects the country's commitment to the harsh status quo advocated by American and international drug warriors. Its efforts to treat drug addiction as a public health problem instead of a criminal justice issue, however, are on the cutting edge of progressive harm reduction efforts.

Now, says Maziyar Ghiabi, authorities are considering liberalizing laws around using cannabis and opium. Salon spoke to Ghiabi, an Iranian-Italian working on his PhD at Oxford University, who researches drug use and drug policy in Iran, about the past, present and future of the country's war on drugs. Iran, on drug policy like most anything else, is more complicated than many Americans think.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

You've written that Iran might legalize cannabis and opium. Are you serious?

This is an actual possibility but not in the short term. One institution is really discussing measures to regulate the drug market. By regulation of the drug market, we can mean many different things. One of the ideas is to allow certain substances, in this case cannabis and opium, to be used under specific circumstances. It hasn't been clearly stated what these circumstances are. What is interesting to me is that the discussion is open. It is a very interesting fact that in the Islamic Republic such discussions are taking place.

How is drug policy decided in Iran? Is it controlled by Parliament, or by some other body?

In the last 27 years, all drug laws have been discussed by the Expediency Council. Most of Iranian laws are decided by the Parliament. Drug laws are an exception. The Expediency Council is an institution that was created in 1988 in order to deal with matters of national interest: corruption, drug use, smuggling, national security; questions that are not related to one specific ministry, and that can endanger the Islamic system. And drugs are considered under this label. It's a national security question in a way.

It is an institution which includes leading members of the Islamic Republic, so all of the past presidents of the republic are members of it. Members are appointed by the Supreme Leader. The main feature of people who are part of this institution is experience in policy making. But it's not really important who the members are. There is a bureaucracy of experts behind this institution. It's an expertise which is put into practice.

Tell me a little about the past and present of drug use in Iran. Who uses what, and how has that changed over the past century of social and political upheaval?

Drug use in Iran is a historical phenomenon. Opium has a really important and ancient role in Iranian history, especially a medical kind of use, popular medicine, as a pain killer mostly. And in the 20th century, the recreational use really expanded. Up to the 1970s, the drug of choice was opium. In the 1950s and 60s, we read narratives by foreigners visiting Iran, the reference to opium is very strong: this affected the labor market, people were often described as ‘unproductive’, things like that. But in the 1970s, along with global trends in drug use, heroin becomes more prominent, and it really expands after the success of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, mostly due to harsher prohibitionist laws. The iron law of prohibition says that the harder the prohibition, the harder the drugs.

There's been a progressive move to more kind of modern drugs. In the 2000s, especially after 2004, methamphetamines are really kind of popular. And this is surprising because no one would expect to have something like Breaking Bad in Iran.

What about marijuana?

That's an indigenous drug to Iran. Marijuana has a name in Persian, shahdaneh. It means royal seed. Its traditional use is really in the cuisine, the dried leaves that you use in yogurt and things like that.

Today, it is a really popular thing among young people because it is grown—as anywhere in the world. But there is a slight difference in cultural terms. Weed is sort of a new thing. Historically, Iranians smoked hashish, they didn’t smoke weed. But in the past 10, 15 years, it's become very popular, weed. So there is a trend toward smoking weed, which is also grown in Iran extensively. According to Iranian drug laws, cannabis cultivation is permitted but not for drug use.

Commonplace drug use contradicts the image many Americans have of Iran, as some rigid sanctum of Islamic moral purity. How does this all square?

I think its the media coverage that Iran has had over the last 3 and half half decades. When Western audiences, particularly Americans, think about Iran, they compare it to an authoritarian, dark place. Whoever has been traveling to Iran finds a different kind of place. Which doesn't mean that it's all happy. But it's complicated.

You've said that Iran has a notably progressive approach to drug users. That's even more surprising than the idea that tons of Iranians use drugs. In what ways is the Iranian approach progressive?

Iranian policymakers have been capable of tackling public health issues such as the HIV epidemic through a progressive set of policies and practices such as needle exchange, including among very problematic and controversial populations of drug users such as prostitutes, prisoners, homeless people. They are usually seen as rather un-Islamic. People consider them, usually, as deviant in Iran. As in the West.

In addition, there has been an incredible expansion of methadone substitution programs, which are implemented in most Iranian prisons and every city. Private methadone clinics, not publicly managed. Of course, it's with public blessing because you need a license to open the clinics, and also there is supervision by the Ministry of Health.

Harm reduction is a very controversial issue, and there are many ways of defining harm reduction. One of the problems in Iran is that while many of the harm reduction policies have been implemented successfully there has also been reluctance. With regard to the homeless population, there is kind of an ambivalence. At times they are provided with harm reduction services such as needled distribution but at times because drug use remains a criminal behavior they can be incarcerated. The ambivalence of harm reduction is really very similar to the ambivalence in Europe and the United States.

So this reform impulse exists within a state that puts a lot of people to death for drug trafficking. According to a UN report, "At least 69 per cent of executions during the first six months of 2015 were reportedly for drug-related offences." How do these two approaches coexist? Or are they in conflict?

There is a fundamental paradox. Iran, I think leads the statistics in the death penalty for drug traffickers. It is a very problematic situation, the fact is that Iran shares a very long border with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and over the last 35 years Iran's war on drugs has resulted in 3,000 people dead among Iranian law enforcement agents. So they have paid a very high price in fighting drug trafficking. And this has been supported by Europe and the United States. The flow of drugs from Afghanistan is toward Europe, toward the rich markets.

It hasn't produced really substantial results. There are lots of drugs, while in Afghanistan, since the U.S. invasion, opium production has increased an astonishing number.

Under economic pressure, drug trafficking becomes one of the main sources of income, especially among populations that have been under very difficult economic situations for the past decade. The east region of Iran is very poor, very underdeveloped, and its been paying a high price for the war on drugs. The same in Afghanistan.

What role has the international drug war establishment, including major powers and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, played in Iranian drug policy? The UN special rapporteur for human rights in Iran has warned that "international agencies and states providing assistance to combatting drug trafficking should also ensure that their activities do not contribute to the execution of individuals for drug crimes." Does the UNODC have culpability for these executions?

The UNODC has a lot of culpability across the world because it supports the war on drugs. So the same negative effects that happen in Iran happen in Colombia. I think this criticism against the UNODC is really part of a way to isolate Iran internationally. The fact that the human rights rapporteur criticizes the UNODC without criticizing the effects of the war on drugs in many other regions is an example of a double standard. Often we forget to deconstruct that the death sentences are really a side effect of the war on drugs. The discourse within Iran is that we are fighting a war because drugs are flowing to Europe.

By Daniel Denvir

Daniel Denvir is a writer at Salon covering criminal justice, policing, education, inequality and politics. You can follow him at Twitter @DanielDenvir.

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Addiction Iran War On Drugs