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Tehran tries to make its addicts go to rehab

Iran's policy of forcibly transferring street addicts to government-run rehabilitation camps appears to falter.
Iranian drug addicts prepare heroin for injection near the Zeytoun (olive) drug rehabilitation center in south Tehran February 23, 2004.The Zeytoun center is run by a former addict called 'Forouhar' who weaned himself off drugs in the [United States]. Senior police officers have recently estimated that the Islamic Republic has some two million addicts and their forces struggle to contend with huge consignments of drugs smuggled over the porous border with [Afghanistan].   
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TEHRAN, Iran — The skyrocketing number of drug addicts on the streets of cities in Iran, and their unstable situation, has turned into a national dilemma. Legal, judicial and security organizations are engaged in dealing with this issue. Indeed, recent remarks by Iran’s police chief, Brig. Gen. Hossein Ashtari, are proof of this. At a press conference Oct. 4, Ashtari announced that the police has prepared a report about the situation of drug addicts in urban centers across the country, and submitted it to the president, speaker of parliament and judiciary chief as well as the Iranian Security Council. “Dealing with this problematic phenomenon is one of our special programs, although its elimination requires the cooperation of all organizations,” Ashtari said.

Based on official statistics announced by Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli in August 2014, there are 1.3 million addicts in Iran. Of these, 100,000 were described as “street drug addicts.” Principlist outlet Khabar Online has published a more alarming take; last October, it quoted the head of treatment and social support at the government’s anti-drug organization as saying that there are 200,000-220,000 high-risk drug addicts on the streets in Iran. Regardless of which figure is correct, the fact remains that it is large — and it seems that the only policy that relevant organizations in Iran have adopted in dealing with addiction is to pick up drug addicts from the streets and their hangouts.

An executive manager at one of the nongovernmental organizations that provides social services for street drug addicts told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “The only serious response that the government, police and judiciary have shown toward this bitter social reality is to use force.” He added, “At the moment there is a vicious cycle. The police attack the addicts’ hangouts, put them into vans and transfer them to mandatory rehabilitation camps, where they are forced to quit. [Once they’ve quit] they are released across the city again without any sort of support.”

The policy of clearing up the streets through force is based on Article 16 of the law on narcotics. The police favors this policy, and it seems that President Hassan Rouhani — a moderate — is also in tune with such an approach. Indeed, the huge police presence in the past year in areas where drug addicts converge follows an Oct. 8, 2014, Cabinet meeting where Rouhani highlighted begging and street drug addiction as two phenomena that are not “becoming of an Islamic Iran.” The president then personally asked the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, Interior Ministry, Iran’s police force and the municipalities to “seriously pursue ways to clean up the image of cities from such unpleasant social problems.”

In February, the head of the government’s anti-drug organization, Alireza Jazini, said 60,000 “street drug addicts” had been arrested in the past 10 months. He also announced that in recent months, almost every week, a police commander in one of Iran’s provinces — such as Lorestan, Zanjan, Fars, East Azarbaijan and Tehran — had either enthusiastically announced the number of drug addicts on the streets of their cities or talked of their new initiatives to deal with them.

Yet, according to the authorities, this kind of cleanup campaign and forced transfer of detained addicts to mandatory rehabilitation center have yielded no result except for the return of the majority of such individuals to their past — to the streets or hangouts where they engage in substance abuse in groups. “In general, 80% of the recovered addicts return to the cycle of addiction and experience a relapse,” Jazini said in an interview with Farda in August.

Rajab, who uses narcotics at one of the drug dens near Shoush Square in south Tehran, was released on Sept. 11 after a 40-day rehabilitation period at a government center. The 39-year-old returned to his regular hangout on the same day he was released and resumed his drug habit. “The streets are like hell, but the camp, is true hell,” Rajab told Al-Monitor. He said, “The police did not beat us too much, but they harassed us. They hit us on the head for instance. We were about 500 people and the camp had only three bathrooms. They gave us almost nothing to eat except a bowl of beans and a piece of bread the size of the palm of a hand. And they constantly hit us. If we said even one word, they would hit us. Whoever wanted to escape, they would catch him, and as punishment put him in a pool of ice water. I didn’t see it myself, but my friend said one of his roommates had committed suicide.”

In January 2014, Reformist daily Shargh published a shocking report about the terrible situation of addicts at the Shafagh center, depicting something almost similar to a torture camp. The report said 53 people had died from bloody diarrhea at Shafagh. It also said a number of addicts at the camp had set fire to their mattresses one month earlier in protest of their horrible living conditions, enabling them to escape in the ensuing blaze.

Speaking about the reasons of why the current policy of mandatory transfer of drug addicts from the streets to government centers is not effective, the manager of a nongovernmental organization that offers social services for addicts told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Unfortunately government and police officials have little understanding of the disease of addiction, and their classic belief that addicts should be forced into quitting has led to the situation that we are witnessing now.”

He said he hoped that the authorities and especially the Rouhani administration will cooperate with the relevant organizations and allow the testing of more scientific and humane methods in dealing with street drug addicts. “Our first priority should be to set up safe places for substance consumption and provide addicts with support packages, such as sterile syringes and condoms. By helping them feel relaxed and gaining their trust, we can gradually encourage them to quit drugs, while providing an environment where they know that after they quit their addiction a respectable life with a job will await them. You can never get someone to quit by using force and beating them.” 

Editor's note: This article has been updated since its initial publication.

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