Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Coming clean in Tehran

Guardian Weekly:

Robert Tait The longed-for pilgrimage to Mecca should have been enough to give Hasan, a devout Muslim, a spiritual high. But even while paying homage to the Prophet Muhammad, he needed a little help from a friend. "When I went on the haj, I put a lump of opium inside my walking stick," he says, clicking open the fold-up device to show how he concealed the contraband. "I went abroad like that many times, to Mecca, Turkey and elsewhere. I was carrying the best quality opium. I was financially well-off, so I could afford it."

The drug-hazed trip to Islam's holiest shrine was the moral nadir of Hasan's 30-year battle with addiction, which, he says, left him socially stigmatised and emotionally alienated from his wife and sons. The physical signs of a titanic internal struggle against his need to take opium five times a day are manifest in the tell-tale bulbous black bags beneath his eyes.

But now he has found redemption. Aged 80, he is the oldest living success story of Narcotics Anonymous, a rapidly growing grassroots movement confronting Iran's addiction level - an epidemic defined by United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) statistics as the worst in the world - through a nationwide network of open-air counselling sessions.

According to the UNODC, more than 4 million of Iran's 70 million people are addicted to drugs. Middle-aged professionals and academics are as vulnerable as undereducated, socially deprived teenagers, say experts.

Through a cathartic blend of advice, prayers and no-holds-barred confessionals, Narcotics Anonymous is offering an escape. Every night at 10pm, thousands of recovering addicts meet in public parks throughout Iran to exchange tales of shared agonies. Bonding them is the determination never again to yield to addiction, a goal attainable, according to the group's dictum, only through total abstinence.

Gathered in a semi-circle under a moonless night sky, the 40 or so men in Tehran's Barzegar park could have been mistaken for a group of amateur star-gazers. But the impassioned speeches, random hugging and spontaneous outbreaks of applause attested to the earthly nature of their concerns. In this meeting, one of the nightly gathering's most seasoned participants stood up and recounted how he conquered his addiction. He told the others they could only achieve the same if they admitted their sins before God.

Hasan, who owns a laundry business in Tehran, discovered the sessions through his driver, an opium addict. Now clean, Hasan is a mentor to the afflicted. "I have cleaned up this entire commercial neighbourhood," he says, gesturing to the street. "The owners of nearly all the shops round here, the housing agency, the baker, the butcher, the florist, were addicts until I took them to the meetings. As the oldest member, I am an inspiration for other addicts," he said.

Hossein, a 50-year-old doctor who has now recovered from a 12-year heroin addiction, was persuaded to attend sessions following two months' jail for possession. "I had hit rock bottom. When I first went to the meetings, I remember it was hard to admit my addiction and express myself. I was scared. Now, I get drug addicts coming to me for prescriptions for morphine, opium or tranquillisers. I only write the prescriptions on condition that they go to the sessions."

Sheer necessity has dictated that sessions be held outside; demand for Narcotics Anonymous meetings has far outstripped available accommodation since the group began organising in Iran in the mid-1990s. With membership now above 30,000, the group holds 2,200 weekly meetings, the vast majority outdoors, in 183 Iranian towns and cities.

In Mashhad, in northeast Iran, a man who had been sleeping in a park was drawn to the large gathering nearby and eventually joined up. He had been one of Iran's leading architects but had lost his status through drug addiction. Through the meetings, he recovered and eventually returned to his former professional life. The group has encountered tolerance from officials. "When the police come across our outdoor meetings, they leave us alone," said Siyamak, 47, now one of Narcotics Anonymous's leading Iranian organisers. "Normally, mass public gatherings in Iran would be seen as political and a threat."

Equally unlikely liberal traits are apparent in other facets of Iran's response to its drugs crisis. These include officially approved needle exchange programmes to prevent the spread of Aids, prescription of the heroin substitute methadone, and the distribution of condoms to promote safe sex.

"They have reached the stage where they can no longer have a hostile reaction to this phenomenon," said Behrouz Meshkini, a consultant on drug addiction, who was instrumental in bringing Narcotics Anonymous to Iran. "It is a recognition that the approach of arresting addicts and putting them in jail has failed. The key to Narcotics Anonymous's success is its independence. It is the only truly independent NGO in Iran."

Iran is being overwhelmed by a pincer movement of drugs flowing in through its eastern and western borders, as well as its southern sea ports. Enormous quantities of opium and heroin are smuggled from the east - Afghanistan, Pakistan and former Soviet republics such as Turkmenistan. Compounding this is an influx of hallucinogenic and chemical-based drugs, such as ecstasy, from Turkey and through the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.

Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, more than 2.6 million Iranians have been arrested on drug offences. Almost half the prison population is serving time for narcotic-related crimes. Iran's police and security forces have been fighting a losing war against the smugglers. In 2003 the country's anti-drug forces seized 220 tonnes of drugs, reckoned by the UN to be just a fraction of the amount entering the country. Since the revolution about 3,200 members of the security forces have been killed in clashes with traffickers.

For this grim landscape of addiction, the regime has found a convenient scapegoat: the US, Britain and other countries with forces in Afghanistan, are blamed for failing to stamp out opium and heroin production there.

Independent experts see it differently. "We have a traditionally positive attitude in Iran towards opium," says Meshkini. "But the main problem is the sense of depression and disappointment that exists, especially among the youth. A young Iranian is under much more pressure than a young man in, say, Austria, Switzerland or England. Young people here have obstacles to education, finding jobs or getting married."


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