With cheap Afghan heroin fuelling a switch from traditional opium smoking to shooting smack and a subsequent rise in HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C cases, Iranian authorities are quietly tolerating a harm reduction center in South Teheran. The pragmatic approach contrasts sharply with the Iranian government's official hard-line approach to drug use and begins to reverse a decision taken six years ago to shut down drug treatment facilities and simply punish drug users.
According to Iranian government estimates, some two million Iranians are drug users, with about 200,000 of those using needles. In one of the cruel ironies of drug prohibition, that number is likely to rise as cross-border smugglers turn to the more compact and profitable powder instead of bulky raw opium. In a report from the Khaleej Times, based across the Persian Gulf in the United Arab Emirates, south Teheran street dealers reported that a daily fix of heroin was going for about $2, while a daily fix of opium was going for $8, or four times as much.
According to the Times, a family-run nonprofit organization called Persepolis is running a "drop-in center" for drug users that includes methadone maintenance and a needle exchange program -- and the government is looking the other way. "We get around 100 addicts a day. After they register, they receive breakfast, warm food, shampoo, methadone and a special drug-use package," said the center's manager, Abdolrazaq Ruhi. "The personal drug-use package is the only way to stop transmission of hepatitis and HIV," Ruhi explained. "Patients are obliged to return used syringes to stop sharing them."
The center also provides blood tests and even hospitalization if necessary. And it provides counseling as a first step toward kicking the habit.
That authorities have not moved against Persepolis could be a sign that they are beginning to rethink the notion that drug users are criminals. Iranian anti-drug chief Mehdi Abuie told the Times imprisoning drug users had not worked. "Six years ago, the health ministry and welfare organizations closed down the rehabilitation camps, and there was no other place for us to keep the addicts except jails," Abuie explained.
But drugs were easily found in prisons, too, Abuie lamented, and now drug users were being seen "as criminals who need to be healed," a small step toward treating them as autonomous citizens. And the Iranian government will try a kinder, gentler drug war, he said. "We will try to reopen those camps," Abuie said.