Video of street drug use illustrates Iran’s growing addiction problem

·6-min read

A video posted on Telegram in Iran on May 16 shows dozens of men and women openly consuming drugs on a Tehran street. Some inhale amphetamines while others inject heroin, in a scene that shocked many Iranians. According to our Observers, this video illustrates a growing addiction problem that has become more and more visible in the streets of southern Tehran.

The video was taken in Neshati Alley, a street in an impoverished neighbourhood of southern Tehran. Although the exact date the video was taken is unknown, this phenomenon is becoming increasingly more common. According to our Observers, more and more open drug use has taken place in these neighbourhoods over the past two years.

Places like Neshati Alley, in the Shush neighbourhood, are known as regular gathering points for drug users, many of them homeless.

This 2-minute video shows a typical scene in one of southern Tehran’s neighbourhoods. People gathered on the street relax, eat, or even play, but others are openly consuming drugs. At 0:29, the author of the video explains that he is in the Shush neighbourhood, which has become a new hotbed of visible drug use. Despite the protestations of several people on the street, he continues filming the scene, adding, “It’s my neighbourhood. I can do what I want and if you’re not happy you can leave.”

Iran has an estimated 5 million drug users, with one in 16 people in the country having consumed drugs. More than half of these are thought to be daily users. According to official sources, overdose deaths in Iran reach 4,000 annually.

‘The population of homeless addicts outnumbers NGO capabilities’

Sima (not her real name) is an Iranian journalist who has worked for decades covering the growing addiction crisis in Iran. She told the FRANCE 24 Observers team about the reasons behind the increased visibility of Tehran’s drug problems:

According to optimistic estimates, we have about 64,000 homeless addicts in Iran. Some neighbourhoods and parks in southern Tehran have been gathering places for homeless drug users for decades, for example, the poor area of Darvazeh Ghar or Harandi park.

About two years ago, police evicted them and installed fences around the park to prevent them from returning. Since then, they moved to Shush Square (Editor’s note: One of the busiest central crossroads of southern Tehran) where the video was recorded.

Spotting drug users in the Shush neighborhood is not surprising, but may be more likely after these evictions. All of the people who used to stay in parks or in the maze-like streets of Darvazeh Ghar, were brought to the surface in main squares and neighbourhoods. They are poor, resorting to petty theft in order to secure money to buy drugs. It makes the neighbourhoods more unsafe.

In addition to becoming more visible, some say that the number of drug users and addicts in the city is increasing. Iran’s State Welfare Organisation officials estimate that the number of homeless people in addiction has even doubled over the past two years.

These homeless drug users generally group together, either for safety or for economic reasons, they become like a family to each other after a while. But unfortunately, they use the same needles and also find it easier to obtain drugs because the dealers can come to just one place.

Police don’t have a regular presence in the neighbourhood – they just intervene during targeted raids or evictions, conducting mass arrests. On many occasions, they even arrest non-users or bystanders.

There are several organisations dedicated to helping people experiencing addiction in Iran, but according to Sima, they lack the proper resources to alleviate the addiction crisis.

NGOs and associations are active, but the population of homeless addicts simply outnumbers NGOs’ logistics and hosting capabilities. The organisations mostly feed them or provide some limited medical or psychological services.

Besides the NGOs, there are many compulsory rehab centres too. When police arrest homeless people experiencing addiction, they send them to the centres. The situation there is horrible: humiliation and violence are common practice, and cases of death are not uncommon. Most addicts have been to these rehabs once or twice, but their success rate is mediocre.

Based on estimations from Iranian experts, 80% of addicts relapse after going to rehab.

>> Read more on the Observers: Torture and humiliation reported norm at Iran’s rehab facilities

According to Sima, these rehab centres do little to solve the root causes of addiction that have reached the streets of Tehran.

The only thing we do in Iran to combat addiction, particularly to treat homeless people experiencing addiction, is police methods, such as arrests and forced rehabilitation. However, addiction is a wider issue that needs a comprehensive solution on social and economic scales.

According to official statistics, 70% of prisoners in Iran are charged with drug-related crimes.

Cheap and easy to buy

Neighbouring Afghanistan is known to be the world’s leading producer of illicit drugs, namely opium, which makes drugs more accessible and affordable to people in Iran, compared to other countries.

Mona (not her real name) is another Iranian journalist who has worked on addiction issues for years. She explained what it takes for an average Iranian to obtain illegal drugs.

According to many studies, the average time it takes for someone to buy drugs in Iran is about 30 minutes.

The price of opium is about 7,000 to 12,000 toman per gram (Editor’s note: about 0.26 to 0.46€) and if we estimate an average use of five grams per day, that costs about 35,000 to 60,000 toman per day (Editor’s note: Less than 3 euros per day).

However, these homeless addicts mostly use drugs that are much cheaper and much more powerful than opium.

Other drugs such as heroin and amphetamines can be found at similar prices on the streets of Tehran, making most drug users able to maintain their addiction for the equivalent of less than 3 euros per day.

While these prices are low compared to many other countries, they still represent a significant cost to people in Iran, where a minimum wage salary is around 2.6 million toman, or about 100 euros. This forces many drug users on the street to resort to petty crimes to finance their addiction.

Mona explains:

To gain that money men either pilfer or stage fake car accidents. Women may turn to prostitution.

Videos have captured individuals even resorting to stepping in front of cars and faking injuries in order to collect money from drivers.

According to official numbers, Iran has confiscated more than 1,200 tonnes of drugs in the last year, setting a global record.