Iran has a growing drug problem, and young, well-educated women are among its biggest victims

The conversation about drugs is slowly coming into the open.
The conversation about drugs is slowly coming into the open.
Image: Reuters/Caren Firouz
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The young woman’s dark bangs cover her brows. She’s wearing a purple hoodie and a sweatshirt bearing, above her baby bump, the simple question: “What’s up?” Standing amid the remnants of some wooden furniture and a few pieces of rolled-up carpet, she says she’ll quit crystal meth before the baby is due, and her husband will, too.

It could be a scene in any Western capital, but this is Tehran, and the young woman—featured last year in a documentary by TV Plus, Iran’s only internet TV station—is one of the country’s spiraling number of homeless female addicts.

Though the first drug rehab center for women was opened in Tehran four years ago, the government of president Hassan Rouhani, in power since 2013, has addressed the issue more directly. Last year Shahindokht Molaverdi, Rouhani’s vice-president for women and family Affairs admitted that the number of female addicts has more than doubled over the past couple of years (though without giving precise figures). Girls as young as 13 are becoming addicted, according to Iranian officials. Molaverdi said that as of January there were some 500 homeless female addicts on the streets of Tehran, but reports from other agencies and researchers range as high as 15,000. (Editor’s note: Most links in this article are in Persian.)

Perhaps most striking about Iran’s drug problem, though, is that it often affects not just poor women, but also well-off and highly educated ones.

Continuing education has been popular among Iranian women over the past 25 years, and particularly in the past decade. The numbers of private universities and admitted students have risen. But upon completing their degrees, many single women—who, typically, live with their parents before marriage—haven’t been able to get jobs in an economy weakened by mismanagement and economic sanctions. So if their families can pay, they opt for more school, possibly only to end up unemployed again.

At the same time, fewer young Iranian men are committing to marriage—again, because they can’t get well-paid jobs or are looking to emigrate. According to the Iranian ministry of interior, over the past year, in Tehran, marriage rates have fallen by 0.4% and divorce rates have risen by 1% on the year before—small numbers perhaps, but alarming to Iranian officials.

With youthful energy and plenty of time on their hands, some women from the middle and upper economic classes fall into depression, and some, subsequently, turn to substance abuse. Though the 1979 revolution imposed strict Islamic law, Iranians have mastered the art of the underground party, where ample alcohol and drugs are usually readily available.

These better-off women are seldom counted in statistics about substance abuse, since they typically don’t rely on state support either for quitting or for everyday expenses. By and large, their families keep their addiction concealed. Government-run rehab centers are few and far between, and while there are many private rehab “camps,” Iranian government officials have warned addicts against them, saying “they might as well die on the streets rather than check into such rehab camps.”

Iranian officials suggest that 85% of Iranian addicts return to the “cycle of addiction.” (In the US, a study in 2000 estimated relapse rates of 40%-60%.) Most, they say, go through rehab 15 to 20 times in their lives.

One reason is that drugs are cheap and easy to come by. People use everything from crystal meth to opium, with narcotic-like pain relievers such as Tramadol in between. In particular, Iranian women have developed a habit of using crystal meth to lose weight. Some buy it illegally at spas and beauty salons, where they are told it will help them maintain a slender figure.

While the government is no longer in denial about Iran’s drug problem, it has done too little to remedy it. Vague or dubious statistics, lack of proper and systematic infrastructure, and the small number of active civic groups contribute to the problem.

One thing that might help is more honesty about the economic prospects for people who spend years pursuing an education. Iranian officials brag about the high number of well-educated women in an Islamic country under severe sanctions, but when that country can’t give those women jobs, the end result is frustration, depression, and substance abuse.

Finally, religious norms, tradition, and the general culture mean that male addicts in Iran are more likely to be acknowledged as sick people in need of help, while female addicts are more likely to be labeled immoral wrongdoers. Iran needs to treat substance abuse in women as the disease it is, rather than as a moral failing.