A new way to get stoned in Iran
Struggling for years against the scourge of cheap and plentiful opium and hashish flowing across the country's porous 1,293 kilometre border with lawless Afghanistan, Iran is considering a radical strategy - limited legalisation of the two drugs.
A senior Iranian official recently laid out what could be a new policy direction for Iran's war on drugs, independent media outlet The Conversation reported on Thursday.
Speaking at a recent conference on addiction in Tehran, Saeed Sefatian, heading the working group on drug-demand reduction in the powerful Islamic advisory body the Expediency Council, suggested the Iranian state involve itself directly in the cultivation, production, supply and consumption of the two narcotics.
|Iran officially has two million drug addicts, but unofficial figures put this number at five to six million
Sefatian's suggestion is that the two drugs be legalised only in private places and for opium, only for users above a certain age.
Interestingly, pre-revolutionary Iran permitted registered users above 50 to consume opium legally.
Pushed towards pragmatism
Iranian policies towards drugs and drug use are surprisingly pragmatic for a country that often seems so dogmatic on points of religious principle.
But then, recreational drug use and addiction is rampant in Iran. The country of almost 80 million officially has two million drug addicts, but unofficial figures put this number at five to six million, US news website RawStory reported.
This reality has forced the Islamic Republic to be pragmatic, as decades of tough enforcement of anti-drug laws have not stopped the growing prevalence of drug use or growing numbers of addicts.
Though hashish is strictly illegal in the country, police largely turn a blind eye to its consumption as long as it is done discreetly.
Iran's turn to more progressive drug policies has been praised by the World Health Organisation.
The Islamic Republic's policies have included addiction treatment programmes including methodone substitution, and a programme to distribute clean needles to its estimated 250,000 injecting drug users, which has brought an HIV epidemic among these users under control.
Ten years after the pragmatic harm-reduction policies were passed into law, Iran has more than 6,000 methodone clinics.
If implemented, the new policies suggested by Sefatian may provide the Iranian state with a lucrative new revenue stream. It could also dramatically reduce the number of Iranians in prison - an estimated 60-70 percent are there on drug-related offences, and the number of death sentences issued for drug smuggling continues to rise.
The ready availability of hashish and, possibly, opium might also curb the use of heroin and crystal meth, both of which are currently cheaper than hashish or opium and whose use has exploded in recent years.
Bringing down the price of opium and hashish will likely be critical in ensuring the success of the new initiative.
Conservatives versus pragmatists
There will, of course, be a backlash from conservative Iranians who see drug use and the trade associated with it as an immoral, criminal activity that must be suppressed at any cost.
The suggested changes would make Iranian drug policy more progressive than in most Western states.
However, the new idea has a powerful backer in the Expediency Council.
The council was established in 1987 by the founder of the Islamic Republic and its first Supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to resolve conflicts between parliament and the Guardian Council - two of the most powerful secular and Islamic elements in the Islamic Republic's constitution.
The Expediency Council also has the special role of advising Iran's supreme leader - and reportedly even acquired some of his powers to supervise branches of government in 2005.