Living in Iran # 4– The Drug Culture
Pre-article note from Stick:
The number of submissions being posted to the site has slipped this month with this being just the 10th reader’s article posted for July, after 31 were published in June. With this in mind, if you have a story to tell now would be a great time to put something together and send it in. I know from looking at the site stats that there are thousands of you reading these stories….so I hope some of you take the time to pen your own story and send it in!
A recent mail to this site commented on the fact that many Thai bargirls and freelancers are regular drug users, with their drug of choice being Ya ba, otherwise known as ‘Meths’. Originally manufactured by the Nazis during WWII to help keep their troops awake for days. Methamphetamine, to give it its full name is now primarily produced in large quantities in Myanmar. Its use has permeated into many other neighbouring countries, including, but not limited to Thailand. Its fame and use has spread far and wide, from its initial discovery and production point of Myanmar, to Bangladesh, parts of India, Afghanistan and Iran, as well as other parts of the world.
There are many similarities in its development and social impact between Thailand and Iran.
This reminded me of when I was living in the latter and the impact that this drug has had on what many would perceive to be an extremely conservative society. The drug culture that has sprung up primarily in Tehran, but has probably spread its evil tendons further afield. I penned the following essay as part of my monthly blog for friends and family elsewhere in the world whilst living in that country. This particular blog was prompted by an article published in the only English paper, The Tehran Times.
Opium and Heroin, were traditional the drugs of choice of China and many other Asian nations, together with long term expats, but as will be seen from the following heroin became old fashioned, so yesterday. All probably brought about by cost constraints. Historically the British also had a hand in promoting the use of Opium, (of which heroin is a derivative) with their two Opium wars in the 18th and 19th centuries. Although lasting for several hundred years, it was in the 20th century that an alternative arrived. There had to be a better, cheaper, easier drug, thus eventually opening the door to what we today refer to as meths, or in Thailand’s case, Ya ba.
Traditionally Iranians and before them, The Persians had always turned to opium and heroin, easily accessible from their neighbour Afghanistan, with its vast poppy fields. Not long ago, those living in Tehran seemed content puffing on the opiates pouring across that border en-route to Europe. Some small trade on the way was therefore inevitable and the Persian’s lounging, carefree, on soft paisley-patterned bolster pillows, heating up bongs of 19th-century vintage were eager and ready consumers. The price was only a little jaundice, some lingering constipation, sunken eyes with dark rings, lack of a work ethic and responsibility, and a gradual loss of libido. This was the local culture and tradition, having been going on for generations.
Opium was indeed a murderous agent and slowly the people became addicted. But it was the traditional opiate of generations and it became a default comfort. Opium eased away frustrations and failings. This was a traditional addiction respectful of Persian history, of traditions that allowed them to go with the flow as they socialised around glowing charcoal burners. Lethal, yes, but slow and relaxed – almost spiritual, fitting into the Persian historical culture.
But the world was changing. When I first visited Tehran some 40 odd years ago, there were no residential towers with views of snow-capped mountains. There was no smog and pollution, such as there is now. The population was not into today’s mega millions. The roads were for a few large American cars that had been imported, not the huge new highways speeding the city’s residents from one side of the city to another in the new 1½ million poor quality new cars that are locally produced each year.
Unnoticed, liberalism under the new open political government of the 90’s was creating its prerequisite: the minor-thrill-seeking, fast-moving modern citizen. Using opium in gatherings around charcoal burners was now far too time-consuming, and if truth be known – too old fashioned! Heroin had a sudden tsunami in its death throes of the 1990s, but ¬it quickly became expensive and anyway, amongst the prestige conscious Iranians it had acquired a stigma of being old fashioned and lower class.
It wasn’t long before pharmaceuticals from Pakistani labs came along to soothe and feed Tehran’s nighttime rave fever. So with the illegal DJ’s came Ecstasy and the other brightly coloured little pills of delight.
The young popped pills together. Late in the evening, young men and women would gather in darkened houses, took Ecstasy and topped it off with hashish and marijuana joints. They hyperventilated to the rhythms of the banned western trance and techno music until they would bend at the knees, after which they would try to balance their fuzzy minds with a little of their father’s traditional drug – opium, all washed down the illegal smuggled alcohol that had came across the borders.
Meth was great in the mornings too. Its devotee’s would inject, snort or smoke a pinch. Shave or put on make-up, and then be set for the day in the huge polluted and crowded metropolis that is Tehran. The meth would see them through the morning, until in the afternoon, they would seek out quiet places for a siesta. The arms of Morpheus and their god called meth, deadened the weariness of daily work and the aimlessness and oppression of city life.
This then, was the new Tehrani youth. A new lifestyle was evolving as the middle-class young left home, or at least aspired to, the reality being that they really never did. They could not afford to move out, as their miserly earnings were being used to serve their God meths. The more the old social powers – parents, clerics, media commentators – rejected this lifestyle, the more attractive it became. Customary social relationships were boring in their repetitiveness. The young were looking for mind-altering ways to break from themselves and the boredom of the harsh theocratic regime. Remember that this is The Islamic Republic of Iran – the land of forbidden pleasures and regulated misery!
Such was the matching of the new life and the new drugs. Up to this point – the mid 2000’s, the final years of the reformist administration – Crystal Meth, also known as shisheh, (not to be confused with the water pipe smoking shisha tobacco) or crystalline glass, was still rare and so its addiction had not spread. Its then high price made it a luxury that few could afford daily.
But it had gained a foothold. Its high lasted longer than all other drugs. And crystal meth exactly fitted the new economy, where everything could be attained through shortcuts. It allowed its users to lose weight without a diet. It didn’t contain opiates, such as morphine, that smacked of old traditions and of their parents. With shisheh, anything could be achieved, music, study, sex, a computer game – whatever was your primary fix. At that time, due to ignorance, no-one expected to become addicted or knew meth addiction could eventually lead to insanity.
Meanwhile regional developments made opium quite scarce. The limitations imposed by President Ahmadinejad’s conservative government put a damper on raves. The pill popping society was still there, but in a couple of years it lost favour as news came of living bodies falling apart, due to the high level of cortisone in these drugs.
How the formula for crystal meth actually arrived in Iran and by whom is open to conjecture and stories are told that are largely urban myth. But another related urban myth said that it came from the East, as did the three wise men who also came from the East, bearing gifts ! Thus endowing it with an almost religious cloak of respectability and reverence. But the reality was that with small recipe variations, all primary ingredients were readily available to anyone. It became easy to hire a ‘chemist’ with a mere B degree from one of the many Tehran Universities to convert a small space in an apartment and produce a Kilo of meth. Quickly networks of operators sprung up selling shisheh in Tehran’s well known hangouts, supported by labs or kitchens producing literally tons of the stuff. The wonder drug had arrived – sating not only the needs of the youth, but also the hearts and minds of the older generation, who were by now being worn down by the daily socio-economic pressures brought on them by the Ahmadinejad administration and the theocratic dictates of the Mullahs and Ayatollah’s.
The profitability of meth fitted well with ever tightening economic noose of the day and the culture of the bazaar. The trade was quickly and predictably taken over by the mafia type gangs – the immigrants from Azerbaijan or Turkmenistan. They had years of international smuggling experience, whose second home was prison, who had no compunction about sending a hit team to dispatch a competitor by any means, including murder. They still rule the city openly by day and night. Between 2009 and 2010 the price of meth dropped by 400% as production became more streamlined and the country self sufficient in its production to an ever increasing consumer base.
So Crystal meth, has in a very short time become Tehran’s drug of choice. One could say that Meth is to sedative opiates, what new Tehran is to old Tehran. Injecting meth brings a quick rush of energy: energy to keep pace with ever increasing inflation; being able to attain unimagined, unachievable and forbidden goals and activities. It boosts the self confidence (so sadly lacking here, particularly amongst the women) Makes the user believe that he or she will soon be the lucky owner of a penthouse in one of north Tehran’s apartment blocks, or maybe the latest model Porsche. It lets them rise out of an expanding and indifferent crowd. It melts away the inhibitions that seem to be the largest barrier between them and their innermost secret desires, it makes them optimistically elated. When they smoke meth, they become loquacious, a poet – poetry being very much part of historical Persian culture. They see themselves as the modern day author equal to the drunkard Omar Khayyam of The Rubaiyat fame. They understand the existential meaning of knowing God, they know that God is one, realise his unity and therefore know all. They understand ‘Unity’ in the mystical sense, implying that nothing really exists besides God, that he is the One Being and that everything else is ‘Not-being’, which reflects being and thereby appears to exist.
Such profuse existential verbiage is the currency of middle class trade in this metropolis and meth makes it all so real for the user … if not perhaps for the listener!
But in simple terms, like all youth, they sought to find themselves and the meaning of life, through free will, choice and personal responsibility. All the things that the harsh theocratic regime had imposed and robbed them of, smothering them with faux religious laws and edicts.
The city is always ready to help. You can usually walk a short distance in any direction, either from the office or apartment and purchase history’s cheapest drug for a few toman per gram. A favourite spot for the dealers is at the bus stops or taxi ranks ready for the evening rush hour. One sees the cash and packet change hands like a magician’s sleight of hand between dealer and bus driver at traffic lights during the hot noon day sun.
When night falls Tehran is once again in the grasp of meths. A trip down Jordan Street (THE Street to be seen in) at midnight will once again see the drug dealers out patrolling their turf, each carrying a satchel over their shoulder, not approaching or making eye contact with anybody, just waiting for their regular customers to catch up with them. The punters themselves are furtive in their movements, most wearing a hat pulled low over their eyes, collars turned up, continually glancing around to check if they are being followed, some not even getting out of their car.
Whilst there are no reliable statistics on drug use in Iran, the state welfare organization suggested last year that some 10% odd of Tehrani’s aged between 15 – 30 have tried meths. I am reliably told however that these are government figures and the realities are in fact somewhere in the region of 40%+. A university medical researcher has claimed that around 50% of admitted mental patients in Iran are there due to complications from the use of meths. According to the English language newspaper Tehran Today, in the last couple of years the authorities have seized 1½ tons of methamphetamine, the main ingredient of crystal meth and 3½ tons of finished product, whilst closing down nearly 400 labs or kitchens. But by their own admission the authorities have only managed to discover and close a very small number of these facilities.
Meths also brings with it the dreaded HIV virus as well, as although Iranians are not by nature promiscuous, the use of shared needles spreads the disease of itself. This allied to the use of the drug creates lowered levels of inhibition leading to greater sexual promiscuity and thus the spread of AIDS as well.
So what doesshisheh do to the average Tehrani ?
According to Google, the chemistry is simple. The methamphetamine in crystal meth causes a rush of dopamine in the synaptic spaces between neurons – which leads to enhanced awareness and perception. But by disrupting the regulatory systems that control the level of dopamine present in the brain, methamphetamine in the long term has a primary role in the onset of bipolar disease and depression.
Methamphetamine is one of the most addictive of all substances, and medical treatments like anti-anxiety and anti-depression drugs can only ease the symptoms, but never cure the addiction. There is no cure for crystal meth addiction other than breaking habits old and new, resisting the pull of what passes itself off as progress, and arriving at a form of self-awareness amid the mad play of forces unleashed in the bipolar temperament of Tehran. Euphoric one minute, depressing the next, disorientation turning the user’s dream palaces into desolate crumbling ruins and luxury cars to rusty hulks.
The light in their minds slowly collapse’s into silent isolation. They will have years to succumb to their final collapse, as they regurgitate all the hallucinations that life has fed them … as they dream of their next fix.
Such is the wonderful spiritual life that the Ayatollahs and Imams have created for the people of Tehran.
Given the impact that this modern day drug has and is having on a relatively well educated society, one can only wonder what it is doing to the bargirls and freelancers in Thailand. Also what impact is it having on local society.
The author can be contacted at : [email protected]