Iran trials opium tincture in bid to help 1.2m drug addicts

Authorities will make tincture treatment available at clinics that deal with addiction in country that has highest rate of opiate abuse in world

TEHRAN // In a bid to help Iran's 1.2 million drug addicts, opium tincture will soon become available to treat addiction in authorised rehabilitation centres, the Iranian health ministe said on Saturday. Pilot studies have shown opium tincture to be effective in the treatment of drug addiction, with 75 to 80 per cent of addicts who receive the treatment managing to stay off drugs, Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi told the Islamic Republic News Agency.

Iran effectively eradicated opium poppy cultivation following the Islamic revolution of 1979, but its proximity to Afghanistan, the world's top opium producer, has resulted in a ready availability of drugs as well as higher rates of addiction, particularly among the younger generation. Today, Iran has the highest rates of opiate drug abuse in the world, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the 2010 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report released by the US state department.

Nearly 80 per cent of all Iranian drug users are addicted to opium or other opioids such as heroin and the deadly crack heroin, also called Iranian crack or compact heroin - a nearly pure form of heroin. According to official figures released by Iran's Drug Control Headquarters, two million Iranians between 15 and 64, or 2.8 per cent of that demographic, use drugs. Of the total number 1.2 millions are recognised as drug addicts while 800,000 more are occasional and recreational users.

International organisations such as UNODC estimate the actual number of drug users to be higher. The introduction of opium tincture in drug abuse treatment has been on the agenda of Iran's Drug Control Headquarters for nearly three years but the implementation of the plan had so far been delayed by resistance from health ministry officials who fear opium tincture may itself be abused in the absence of appropriate control mechanisms and would actually aggravate addiction problems.

Many doctors also believe that opium tincture is less effective in the treatment of addiction to opioids than methadone maintenance treatment, which has been used extensively in Iran for more than a decade. "Methadone maintenance has internationally been proven to be the most successful method of treatment of drug addiction," Dr Farideh Khodabandeh, who heads the Methadone Maintenance Treatment Clinic at Tehran's Loghman Hospital, was quoted by ISCA News as saying.

With Ms Dastjerdi's express support, opium tincture will now become available in tens of authorised clinics around the country. Iran has used methadone as part of its strategy to prevent HIV/Aids from spreading among injecting drug users, estimated by drug control officials to number about 200,000, and to rehabilitate addicts. Shared needles among injecting drug users account for more than 60 per cent of the 20,130 cases of HIV/Aids so far identified in the country, according to health ministry officials.

Drug users who voluntarily enter methadone programmes, conducted by public and private rehabilitation centres as well as some prisons and detention facilities, are exempted from prosecution in Iran where prisons are overflowing with drug-related or drug-addicted prisoners. "More than 600,000 drug users around the country are receiving methadone maintenance treatment now," ISCA News quoted Dr Khodabandeh as saying.

Iran's spends millions of dollars annually in its eastern regions to block the flow of narcotics from Afghanistan and Pakistan. To stop drug traffickers' heavily armed convoys from penetrating the country, Iran has built an extensive system of canals, concrete walls and embankments along its 600-kilometre long borders with its eastern neighbours. According to the latest figures released by UNODC in 2007, Iran had the highest rate of seizure of opium and one fourth of the total of seized heroin in the world.