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Getting clean in an opiate den

Iran, which has a large proportion of users, has become more pragmatic about drugs.

April 20, 2008|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

TEHRAN — The man in the mustard-colored blazer had a new haircut. It shined in the morning light as he stood near a strange, vulnerable collection of guys at the edge of a park, where murals of ayatollahs and martyrs floated above rooftops and gardeners lugged hoses to the sound of water fisch-fisch-fisching over cold green grass.

They asked God for courage to change what could be changed and wisdom enough to know what couldn't be undone. It seemed like a good prayer, and the man closed his eyes and joined in for a moment. Then he cleared his throat and tried to gather the part of himself that he had somehow lost years ago.

"I'm a lodger in a small room," Gholam Reza Akbarabadi said. "These men and I help each other. We talk about daily things -- like today, for example, I have temptation for alcohol and heroin. It's hard. I overcome it by talking. I've been clean four months and 27 days."

He ate a sugar cube and lit a cigarette. The other addicts in Narcotics Anonymous ended their prayer and poured tea, seeking solace from one another in this big, loud city beneath a mountain draped in snow.

"My wife is helping me to quit; she doesn't reproach me so much anymore," Akbarabadi said. "I think, maybe, my reputation will go up in the eyes of society. Society ignored us for years. I've been beaten and flogged in prison, but now society is seeing that I am a patient, not a criminal."

Iran estimates that there are 2 million drug users in this rigidly conservative Shiite Muslim nation. International agencies put the number at more than 3 million. Facing one of the highest proportions of opiate addicts in the world, the Iranian government, which executes drug traffickers, has in recent years shown a degree of pragmatism and tolerance toward men such as Akbarabadi.

"The government has belatedly realized that using force and throwing people in jail won't solve the drug epidemic or the problems of AIDS and hepatitis," said Hussain Dojakam, a former addict with flowing white hair who directs the Human Regeneration Society, a counseling clinic for addicts. "Eighty percent of AIDS patients are addicts who picked it up by using dirty syringes in prison. The laws haven't changed, but attitudes have."

The government sponsors 200 centers around the country that distribute condoms, syringes and methadone. This seems an odd ripple of liberalism for a nation ruled by the Koran, but Tehran is also considering releasing thousands of addicts from prison and has begun testing an opium-based syrup to wean junkies off their fixes. Three months ago, it started distributing food coupons to addicts. This shift in attitude, Dojakam said, is propelled by a police force that over the years has gained a better understanding of the drug culture.

But the populist regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad offers no comprehensive counseling programs or insurance plans to cover narcotics abuse. Addicts are often still treated as outcasts, part of a drug scene that has steadily widened from the middle-class hash and opium smokers in the days before the 1979 Islamic Revolution to today's street-level crack and heroin users, many of them poor and unemployed in a repressive state that offers few options.

"Drug addiction is going up by a horrible rate," said a doctor who runs a private detoxification clinic and asked not to be named for fear of retribution. "When I was young, in a village or a poor neighborhood you'd hear people say, 'I know an addict.' But now drugs are so pervasive, people say, 'I know somebody who is not an addict.' You criminalize beer, you criminalize girlfriends. You close everything to the young, but the young need a way open, an outlet. We doctors are so angry and frustrated at the government."

Many of the drugs reaching Iran are transported across the harsh borderlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan, the world's top opium producer. On a landscape of tribal clans and disparate militant Islamists, Iranian police and security forces battle drug lords. What bundles slipped through over the years reached the men in the park, the members of Narcotics Anonymous, one of many such groups started around the country to help addicts stop using drugs.

The men sat on yellow and red plastic chairs; beyond them women in black chadors worked out on outdoor exercise machines and men with satchels and briefcases rushed for taxis and buses. The addicts were quiet and moved slowly, like a jazz band awakened too early. They coughed and sucked on sugar cubes; the weaker-willed among them reached for cigarettes; a few shivered in the morning chill.

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