Iran Treats its Addicts a Little Better Than Expected

By Jeff Deeney 12/01/11

The repressive regime handles drug traffickers brutally, but does better when it comes to the users.

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In safe hands? Photo via

A report on drug addiction in Iran from Foreign Policy magazine paints a mixed picture of a repressive regime that has taken some steps towards coming to grips with a serious drug problem. There are 1.2 million Iranian opiate addicts; perhaps that's not surprising given that the nation acts as a major conduit for opium and heroin headed westward from Afghanistan to markets in Europe. The stigma attached to heroin addiction in the capital Tehran is complicated by the fact that opium smoking has been a cultural mainstay in Iran for hundreds of years, and is still common in rural areas. Iran's typically hardline, Sharia-law guided government might be expected to take a zero tolerance approach to drug addiction. But in fact there are some ways in which Tehran's response is more progressive than our own. Methadone assisted treatment is available to addicts—in Wyoming, South Dakota and North Dakota, it is not—and a burgeoning 12-Step movement provides community support. The regime may use brutal tactics in handling accused drug smugglers, but Iran's approach to addicts themselves appears to be far more humane than that of nations such as Vietnam and Cambodia.  Diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks revealed that these governments routinely route addicts to hard labor camps where human rights abuses are rife.

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Jeff Deeney is a social worker, freelance writer and recovering addict in Philadelphia. He is a contributor to the Atlantic and has written for the Daily Beast, The Nation, and The Marshall Project. Follow Jeff on Twitter.