Epidemic: Most families impacted
Epidemic. That’s the word commentators and officials use for heroin and opium abuse in Iran. And they are right. Official figures are that around two million are addicted. The real figure is probably at least double that which means that most families are affected. According to the UN, about 30% of the addicts are regularly using syringes; this is the hard core. The rest are sniffing or smoking, and occasionally injecting. Some of these lead almost normal lives, more so the opium addicts. But whatever the intensity, addiction blights the life of the user, and the family: Money drains away in return for more and more shame, especially if the addict ends up in prison.
Shadow of Afghanistan
An obvious reason for Iran’s drug problem is the cheap and abundant supply flowing from its neighbor Afghanistan. Over 4,000 tons are produced there annually, and maybe another 10,000 tons are stockpiled. About 2,500 tons of this comes through Iran on its way to the West. But even if it’s cheap, why are there so many takers in Iran when everyone knows how harmful drugs are? One answer is that opium smoking has long been a part of Iranian culture. In some places you can enter a house and be offered some, rather like when a host in the West offers a guest an evening drink. And just as with alcohol, social use can turn to addiction. Another answer is that since there is no way up for most people, they look for a way out: they want to dull the reality of what they see as the dreariness of their lives. Though there is serious concern as to why so much heroin is pouring in from Afghanistan, the government claims that it is doing all it can to stem the supply .
Treatment for addicts has also recently increased. Twenty years ago it was all about punishment, mainly imprisonment. This still happens, with a capital punishment option for diehard dealers. Now there has been a shift to try and help addicts kick their habit. There are about 600 rehabilitation centers across the country, in addition to over 1,000 clinics which offer help to addicts. Some of these are private, and there have been reports in the press that they charge high
fees to desperate families, but do not deliver. The addict comes out and immediately returns to the needle. Some even complain that heroin is available in the rehabilitation centre.
Bring in Jesus
The drug epidemic is a major opportunity for the church. The addict and the family are desperate to experience healing. And this resides with Jesus Christ who again and again, has proved, He can free people from the curse of drugs. Churches long to be more active in treating addicts, but are thwarted by the government’s hostility to Christian ministry. David Wilkinson in the US, Jackie Pullinger in Hong Kong, and Doug Boyle in Kazakhstan have shown that when it comes to drug rehab, Christians do it best. Statistically their success rate is much higher than others. Seeing more Christian ministry in the Iran region is challenging but not impossible, and Elam Ministries is one agency that is determined to see more happen.