20,000 Iranian Addicts Gather to Celebrate Recovery

By Kirk Maltais 06/30/11

Ahmadinejad congratulated the crowd, then blamed the West for Iran's drug epidemic.

Ahmadinejad fingered the West for hooking Iranians on heroin. Photo via

The largest public gathering of drug addicts in recorded history—after Woodstock, of course—may have just taken place in, of all places, downtown Tehran, under the approving eyes of the mullahs.

According to the 2011 UN World Drug Report, Iran has one of the highest levels of opiate addiction in the world, with 2.26 percent of the population aged 15-64 reporting a dependence on hashish, opium, or heroin. Among nations in the Middle East, Iran’s drug-use rate is matched only by neighboring Afghanistan, the opium capital of the world—and the prime supplier of Iranian junk.

It may surprise many Western readers that the Iranian government, a fiercely repressive theocracy, boasts drug-treatment policies that are more progressive and enlightened than those in the United States, including harm reduction approaches such as offering clean-needle giveaways in its prisons. Narcotics Anonymous in Iran has a membership topping 40,000.

On Monday, some 20,000 officially “rehabilitated addicts” gathered Sunday in the Azadi sports stadium in downtown Tehran to celebrate the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, according to the Tehran Times. Organized by The Rebirth Society, the nation’s leading drug-treatment group—it promotes a 12-step, faith-based, abstinence model—the ceremony featured President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, high-ranking United Nations drug official, and other dignitaries. dedicated to curbing addiction problems in Iran, was to recognize International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking.

Ahmadinejad, infamous for his inflammatory rhetoric against the West, did not disappoint. After praising the addicts for their recovery and promising them priority access to housing and employment, Ahmadinejad took the opportunity to bash Western nations for the heavy traffic of drugs into Iran. “Today, they [Western powers] have begun harming nations, especially the Iranian nation by drugs,” he told the crowd. “Arrogant states masquerade themselves behind the so-called humanitarian masks and they want to stir a sense of inability in other nations. They put on masks of freedom-seeking, human rights, and protecting people, but in fact they are the biggest criminals in the world.”

Ahmadinejad’s claim that Western nations are the main suppliers of Iran’s opiates is all fiery rhetoric and hot air. In fact, the opposite is true, with much of Europe and North America’s heroin originating in Afghanistan, processed in Pakistan and trafficked through Iran. According to the UN, 60 percent of the drugs that leave Afghanistan travel through Iran.

Iran’s progressive approach to drug users does not extend to drug traffickers, however. In 2010, 590 Iranians were executed for drug offenses. As of May 30, 2011, the government has executed 126 people for drug crimes.

Yet Sunday’s gathering of “rehabilitated addicts” marks a remarkable moment for the global recovery movement. As Tehran Times’s Siavash Shekarian wrote: “Sunday’s scene is not only a concrete proof for those people who think addiction is an unsolvable problem that it can be solved but also for those who stigmatize and discriminate against the rehabilitated drug addicts—together they showed the world that recovery is achievable and nothing is impossible. Now it is our social responsibility as the general population…to support our fellow citizens dealing with this problem and helping them toward recovery process hoping that next year we could have the same celebration in the Azadi stadium with 100,000-seat capacity while 200,000 are eager to get in!”

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Kirk Maltais is a New York-based reporter.  Find out more about him on Linkedin and Twitter.

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