Opioid addiction is exploding across Iran, adding to the country’s social instability. Many viral videos show men and women openly using drugs in the nation’s capital Tehran illustrating the scale of the problem.
This is how geography, global politics, and the regime’s mischiefs have created what might be the highest rates of opioid addiction in the world. In 2017, the regime’s troops and border guards seized 630 tons of opium and 39 tons of heroin at the country’s border with Afghanistan. This represents around 25% of all heroin and a staggering 90% of all opium seized in the world that year.
And this is not unusual. Iran regularly intercepts more opioids than most other countries combined. According to the UN, nobody has seized more opium-based drugs than police in Iran— $4 billion of it. Modern recreational drugs have a long and rich history in Iran.
After the 1979 revolution, the mullahs’ regime imposed a ban on both opium production and opium use. And so trafficking, of course, filled the void.
Since then, the regime has developed a reputation as having some of the world’s harshest drug penalties and as an opponent of efforts to reform global drug policy. Overall, however, the regime’s drug policies have been highly varied.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, illicit drug offenses also carry severe penalties. In Iran, being caught with 30 kilos of cannabis or five kilos of heroin carries the death penalty. In 2015, rates of execution for drug-related crimes hit a peak of 725. All in all, 70% of prisoners in Iran’s notoriously harsh prison system are there for drug offenses.
And these laws tend to fall disproportionately on minority groups, particularly the marginalized ethnic Baluch community. There have even been reports of Baluch villages where the entire male adult population has been executed on drug charges.
The country burns about 100 tons of seized narcotics each year. When the regime came to power, it initially adopted very draconian policies: imprisonment of users, no provision of treatment, and execution of drug traffickers.
By 2004-2005, Iran had one of the highest imprisonment rates for drug use in the world. But this harsh regime has utterly failed to stop the spread of addiction. Because the spread of addiction has become the regime’s best tool to prevent any opposition, especially by the youths. Iran has up to 4 million regular drug users, meaning about 2.8% of the entire population.
According to UN calculations, this actually gives Iran the highest per capita rate of problematic drug use in the entire world. Every city in Iran has back alleys overcrowded with addicting men and women full of desperate addicts and dealers, who sell the cheap drugs that flood across the border from Afghanistan. Drugs are mostly imported by the regime’s Revolutionary Guards, its dealers, and civil operatives.
There is no surprise that over the past years, especially after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad swept to power in 2005, funding for all programs to stop or at least decrease drug use declined and the regime doubled down on the puritanical war on drugs approach.
And the left treatment programs suffer from chronic underfunding, and there are many rehab facilities that are more like torture chambers, killing many of the addicted people. There are widespread reports of drug users being savagely beaten and tortured to punish them for addiction.
The regime is pushing users and dealers towards stronger and stranger drugs. Iran has been marked by a steady shift from opium to heroin, and there are now increasing reports of more crystal meth use and production.
Another universal fact of the war on drugs is corruption. In authoritarian regimes, there can be even greater scope for this corruption to take hold. In Iran, the IRGC is the regime’s most elite and influential military force and has strong connections with drug dealing and smuggling.
It now controls large parts of the Iranian economy. But what’s true of the legitimate economy is also true of the criminal economy. And there are many pieces of evidence that elements of the IRGC themselves are deeply embedded in Iranian drug trafficking networks.
There have been reports of the IRGC protecting traffickers, even as they smuggle kilos of heroin on buses taking pilgrims to Islamic holy sites. In any country that has significant illegal economies, there is corruption between officers or institutions. So, you have countries where controlling illegal economies becomes a purposeful, designated source of funding for a military entity or for the regime. And Iran’s regime is undoubtedly one of them.
But despite all the regime’s efforts to increase desperation and hopelessness among the people and the youths, in recent months, protests have rocked the country.