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.