Iran drug addiction rate highest in world

Iranian policemen guard a 100-ton pile of seized drugs burning June 26.

UN statistics estimate that roughly 2.2 percent of Iranian adults are hooked on drugs, the highest rate in the world. Here's how Iran is fighting back.

Away from the lenses of most Western media, Iran is fighting a drug war, both inside the country and at its borders.

In late June, as part of the United Nations' International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, Iran made a show of burning 100 tons of seized drugs.

But according to statistics, Iran's most pressing concern may be the proliferation of cheap street drugs inside of Iran.

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According to UN figures, some 2.2 percent of Iranian adults are addicted to drugs, the highest rate in the world. Experts elsewhere say that number could be much higher, reaching 5 percent of the total Iranian population, the Globe and Mail reported. That would mean of roughly 80 million Iranians, 4 million are hooked on drugs.

Their drugs of choice: "crack," a heroin derivative, and "shishe," a homespun Iranian crystal meth. Both substances are cheap and easy to produce at home or in a jerry-built lab.

"Our concern is how sanctions and the [worsening] economy can make addicts change their consumption patterns from low-risk behaviors like smoking opium to high-risk behaviors such as injection of heroin or use of shisheh," Abbas Deilamizade, director of Rebirth Society, a non-governmental drug treatment program in Iran, told the Financial Times.

Because of Western sanctions that have allotted it little to no money to fight drugs, Iran says it has to fight its and the West's war nearly alone. The budget for the UN drug office in Iran is a little more than $13 million over 4 years while the U.S. has given Colombia more than $5 billion to fight drug traffickers since 2000.

Manpower is also at risk: About 3,700 Iranian soldiers have been killed in the three decades of fighting drug traffickers, Iran claims.

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"These men are fighting their version of the Colombian war on drugs, but they are not funded with billions of U.S. dollars and are battling against drugs coming from another country," Antonio de Leo, the Italian representative for the UN drug office in Tehran, told The New York Times.

Heroin in Iran, however, has been harder to come by of late, its presence reduced by firmer Iranian border control that has built ditches and trenches along the 560-mile boundary. State authorities said they seized 500 tons of narcotics from March 2011 to March 2012. Still, Iran says 2,500 tons of heroin is smuggled into its lands from Afghanistan every year, much of it on its way to Europe.

Even with fewer resources than other countries, Iran says it's making a dent in its war on drugs. It has the highest seizure rate for opiates and heroin of any country in the world, according to a 2012 UN report.

Domestically, even in light of diminished funding, Iran spends heavily on drug education and treatment. By 2002, according to Foreign Affairs, 50 percent of Iran's drug control budget was spent on public health campaigns. The republic has established numerous methadone clinics and needle exchanges and spends as much on treatment and prevention as it does on interdiction.

Related: Methadone deaths rising

"The Islamic Republic of Iran is a pioneer country in the fields of opium substitution therapies and prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS," the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime writes on its website, adding that 88 percent of these programs are funded by the private sector and non-governmental organizations.

Though Iran draws heavy praise for its drug rehabilitation policies, its progress hasn't been without criticism. While the state can be lenient with drug addicts, it can be the opposite with traffickers. Of the nearly 600 people Iran executed in 2010, 80 percent were drug offenders, according to Human Rights Watch. Iran executes the second highest number of prisoners in the world annually, behind only China, Amnesty International reported.

"Iran’s judicial and legal system systematically violates the human rights of accused drug offenders, in particular their right to a fair trial, resulting in numerous death sentences in violation of international law," Human Rights Watch wrote.

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