In Iran, Opium is the Opiate of the Masses.

Back in 2001, the BBC ran a story on Iran’s drug problem and quoted a doctor who put the number of “serious addicts” at 1,200,000. The article goes on to say that the number of drug users was rising by 600,000 each year, with ever-increasing numbers of women among the new users. Drug addiction had suddenly become the primary social concern for the government, with over 70% of the country’s prison population incarcerated on drug-related charges. At that time, opium consumption in Tehran alone was estimated to be five tonnes a day. A more recent two-part BBC documentary states that Iran has the highest rate of opiate addiction in the world, with the official figure set at over two million addicts: Unofficially, the figure could be twice that. But as alarming as the figures are, Iran’s drug problem might merely be a symptom of wider and deeper problems.

After all, drug use in Iran is by no means a recent phenomenon. Just last year Rudi Matthee, a history professor, published The Pursuit of Pleasure: Drugs and Stimulants in Iranian History, 1500–1900 (Princeton University Press), for which he won the Albert Hourani Book Award and the Said Sirjani Award. Nonetheless, the fact that today’s Iran is governed by religious law does render the high rates of drug use a bit surprising, if not outright shocking. Further research, however, turned up some answers.

One explanation—also mentioned in the BBC documentary—was the impact of the eight-year war with Iraq, during which many young men started their drug use. This is plausible, considering it’s not unusual for soldiers to use drugs in wartime. The experience of American GIs during the Viet Nam War is a good example, differing only in that just a small percentage of returning American soldiers lapsed into opiate use once back in the US. Similarly, the chief psychiatrist in Sierra Leone reports that about 90% of the mental-health cases he has dealt with involve substance abuse. During Sierra Leone’s 10-year civil war, drug-influenced fighters (including child soldiers as young as 11) could be found in the ranks of all the warring factions. Although drug use declined after the war, it is once again on the rise. It is conceivable, then, that after a long and destructive war, many Iranians may have brought their drug habits back from the war front.

The experience of war, however, only explains drug use among that segment of the population that was old enough to actively take part in the war. And, since that population is largely made up of men (although women did fight as well), how can one explain the increasing rates of drug use among young Iranians and Iranian women? There’s always the possibility that the documentary was biased or that the figures they cited were inaccurate, but there can be no doubt that Iran has a drug problem. The issue has recently been examined by the UN, the Council on Foreign Relations, the International Herald Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times, so regardless of the figures, it seems hard to argue that Iran does not have a drug problem. 

But is the experience of long-term war the only explanation? The answer appears to be “not entirely.” Another reason for the high rates of drug use is the availability of cheap, raw opium. After all, Iran shares a border with Afghanistan, a top producer of unprocessed opium, making Iran a natural conduit for drugs making their way to markets in Europe, the Mediterranean, and or other parts of the Middle East. Clearly, Iran is also becoming more of a market for these drugs. Introductory Economics teaches that the closer a product is to its state and source of extraction, the cheaper it is. In other words, a more refined, processed, or finished product fetches a higher price. Uncut diamonds are therefore cheaper than cut and polished ones, peanuts are cheaper than peanut butter, and iron ore is cheaper than steel. Moreover, a product’s cost can increase as it moves farther away from where it was originally extracted. So it’s not unexpected that Iranians would—thanks to their country’s proximity to Afghanistan—have access to cheaper opium and opium-based drugs than say, someone living in Paris.

But all this leaves one glaring question unanswered. How is it possible that a country ruled by a conservative theocracy—which governs through religious law—happens to have the world’s highest number of drug users? Perhaps the answer lies in the question. After all, a government that believes that all the solutions to social problems can be found in religion might not be best equipped to deal with problems like depression and drug addiction, problems that cannot be easily solved through prayer and meditation. Perhaps such a government might not be the best suited for managing an economy and retaining human and intellectual capital, both vital for a strong economy. Is it any surprise that, according to the IMF, anywhere between 150,000 and 180,000 highly skilled Iranians annually vote with their feet by emigrating? Perhaps there is a possibility that those who are unable—or for whatever reason, unwilling—to leave join the ever-growing ranks of drug users. After all, lack of economic opportunity and personal and professional fulfillment lead to frustration and depression, which in turn may lead to substance use.

But there is yet another, darker possibility. In 1848, a famous German scholar wrote that religion was the opiate of the masses. A century later, George Orwell gave us a dystopia ruled by a brutal and despotic regime that used pornographic literature and alcohol to pacify the nation it governed. Today, with Iran having the lowest mosque attendance of any Muslim country, it seems the regime is witnessing the limitations of religion’s power to stupefy the nation. Luckily for them, though, it appears the nation has decided to replace a metaphoric opiate with the real thing.


12 thoughts on “In Iran, Opium is the Opiate of the Masses.

  1. Turkey, and Tunisia, also have birthrates that have dropped below replacement level. Most Middle Eastern, Islamic societies, like Iran, are profoundly rotten, in so many ways. When decadent, decaying Rome began to decline and fall, the birth rate dropped. When societies reach a certain level of decay, perhaps it’s a rule of history that their birthrates begin to drop. In the case of the Middle East, that is a very hopeful thing for the rest of the world. Maybe these blighted, stagnant, societies, which are a problem not only for other societies, but also for their own wretched people, will do everyone a favor, a just die out.


  2. Iran also has a very low birth rate, and a very high rate of prostitution. It is a decayed, rotten society. Hopefully, it will be prevented from getting nuclear weapons. And will do the world, and itself, a favor, by lying down to die, like a very sick animal would.


  3. The figures and everything else in the article may be right, however the use of opium or Teriak has always been there, especially in this part of the world; it is a cultural thing and the numbers or percentage hasn’t changed much during the last century. In fact, drug use globally doesn’t change, even if they do everything to make us believe so…


  4. Pingback: New Improvements Dealing with Drug Addictions | Turbo Synergy

  5. Stu,

    Thanks for reading my blog and leaving a comment.

    I don’t disagree with you that Iran’s not the easiest place to live but, having never even visited Iran, I’m not going to go all out and lambaste the place.

    I have to take issue with you though on a couple of points. First, the “lol” at the end of your comment makes light of the plight of the millions of Iranians who have to live under a repressive regime (having never visited Iran, I know I’m going out on a limb here by saying the regime is repressive). My intent in writing this post was to point out that sometimes, you can judge a government by watching the behavior of its subjects. I remember a scene in the movie The Lives of Others, set in Communist East Germany, in which one of the characters mentioned the high rate of suicide among East German intellectuals. Sort of a similar phenomenon, I think. The drug use in Iran is less a problem in itself and more a symptom of a larger problem.

    I also have to take issue with your characterization of Iran’s drug problem as an issue of Islam. Yes, Iran is a majority Muslim country, but we can’t say Islam is the sole cause. After all, the United States has—for an industrialized, democratic country—very high rates of drug abuse and addiction, the highest number (or is it proportion) of incarated people in the industrialized world, not to mention the fact that the overwhelming majority of people in prison are incarcerated on non-violent drug-related offenses (use, possession, or sale). Moreover, Iran is not the only majority Muslim country: Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population without the drug problem. If Islam were to blame for Iran’s ills, then shouldn’t we expect to see similar problems in other countries with large Muslim populations?

    I say we look elsewhere for an explanation. In fact, I suspect looking at Iran’s political situation—not religion!—would yield far more answers.

    Thanks for taking part in this discussion.


  6. Think about it……if you have sex outside of marriage…… get whipped half to death…….if your married and have sex with someone else……you get stoned to death…….even if you just download or blog on the internet downloading “unislamic stuff or writing encouraging people to reject Islam or promote another religion or political view…….it’s the death penalty……if your a woman……not wearing a headscarf or wearing figure revealing clothes gets your arrested…….tortured……and repeated offenses can get you executed……….civil rights….human rights……..workers rights…….womens rights……..all non-existent…….highest rate per capita of executions………imprisonment without trial for long periods……….torture………morality police roaming the streets spying on people, harrassing people who have western haircuts, western clothes……and you people ask why there is so much drug use in Iran lol.

    You can say it all in one word……….ISLAM


  7. Jamshed,

    Thanks for your comment. I agree entire.

    I had no idea the regime had arrested/killed addicts when they first took power (that reminds me of something I read, that when the Maoists took over China, they executed hundreds of thousands of opium addicts).

    As for the power of religion to solve all problems, I guess Iran’s the proof that there are limitations to what can be achieved through religious law. And speaking of denial, I read on some Iranian blog that the Iranian government claims the number of addicts is only in the hundreds of thousands, a figure that’s vastly lower than others I’ve seen. Oh well.

    But there’s one thing about the Iranian government that still puzzles me. Apparently, they pay for sex-change operations. One one hand, it’s great for people who want to change their sex, but on the other it raises the spectre of science being [mis]used by an authoritarian regime. Psychiatry, for example, was notoriously abused by the Soviet regime for marginalizing, isolating, and neutralizing political dissidents: people were basically taken away, declared insane and institutionalized—read locked away—and drugged. I guess a doped out nation is a quiescent nation, which is always great for authoritarian regimes.

    Which brings us back to the question of drugs and pacification, exactly where we started. 🙂


  8. Interesting and detailed analysis. I find it ironic that when this theological regime came to power in 1979, one of the first things they did was denounce the rampant drug use (mostly opium) under the Shah’s regime and incarcerate or kill all the addicts at that time in an effort to rid the country of the deningration of society under the Shah. And now it’s popping up again.

    You’re absolutely right about a mentality that believes religion can solve even physical addictions like that with opium. “If only they prayed, were good Muslims, then we wouldn’t have this problem.” But then again, with the regime’s public denials of what they deem abnormal behavior, remember, according to Akhmenijhad (sp?) Iran has “no homosexuals”, I don’t expect them to tackle the problem, much less recognize its existence.


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