The battle against opium in Iran - a record of progress


On 7 October 1955 the Majlis passed the new Opium Law, sponsored by Dr. J. S. Saleh, M.D., the Minister for Health in the Government of Iran. In the Bulletin on Narcotics (Vol. VIII, No. 3, July-September 1956) an article appeared from the pen of Dr. Saleh, which gave the text of the new law, together with a dramatic exposé of the circumstances under which the law was passed. The law was drastic: it prohibited the cultivation of the poppy and the use, import, movement and export of opium and opium products. It indicated which ministries of the Government of Iran were competent to administer it, and it made arrangements for the implementing of its provisions within a fixed limit of time.


Author: A.E. Wright,, C.M.G., , O.B.E.
Pages: 8 to 11
Creation Date: 1958/01/01

The battle against opium in Iran - a record of progress

A.E. Wright,
Adviser to the Independent Organization for the Control ofOpium, Ministry of Health, Government of Iran

On 7 October 1955 the Majlis passed the new Opium Law, sponsored by Dr. J. S. Saleh, M.D., the Minister for Health in the Government of Iran. In the Bulletin on Narcotics (Vol. VIII, No. 3, July-September 1956) an article appeared from the pen of Dr. Saleh, which gave the text of the new law, together with a dramatic exposé of the circumstances under which the law was passed. The law was drastic: it prohibited the cultivation of the poppy and the use, import, movement and export of opium and opium products. It indicated which ministries of the Government of Iran were competent to administer it, and it made arrangements for the implementing of its provisions within a fixed limit of time.

It is the purpose of this article to tell the story of the battle against opium which was joined in Iran with the passing of the law of 7 October 1957; to estimate progressk; and to tell, as far as may be possible without straining at prophecy, what may be the future of this effort. The effort in itself is wholly commendable. Iran found a moral courage and a vigour which deserve the highest praise, in determining to eradicate the traffic in opium. It is fair to say at the outset that this effort was not a flash in the pan. In spite of difficulties caused by insufficient organization, material and funds, the battle has been remarkably successful in the two years which are now under review. There is no reason to despair of the future.

Regulations under the new law were passed giving in detail the means by which it was to be implemented. These regulations covered in a comprehensive form the ban on cultivation of the opium poppy; the ban on the use of cafés or hotels for drug taking; the prohibition on the preparation or import of material for smoking opium; the treatment of addicts; a general prohibition on the use of narcotics, with penalties; arrangements for technical assistance, advances and loans to aid farmers who had been hard hit by the ban on poppy cultivation; the duties of the various officials; and, finally, the creation of an organization which would oversee the work of implementing the law. This organization, the full title of which is translated shortly as "The Independent Organization for the Control of Opium" derives from the old Opium Monopoly Department, the main function of which, the taking over of opium from the cultivator for government use, has now disappeared. The stocks of opium which were held by the Government of Iran when the new law was passed were to be the concern of the Ministry of Finance; they are now being dealt with by a new ministry, that of Customs and Monopoly. Those officers and men who were not needed for the Department of the Liquidationof Stocks formed the new Department, the function of which is the combat against the drug. The control of this new department vests in a committee of five - a former Minister for Agriculture as chairman, two doctors, a judge and a senior officer of the Ministry of Finance.

All the members of the committee are eminent in public life in Iran, or in their own professions. The constitution of the committee also points a moral on the view taken in this country of the opium traffic. The emphasis is on the sociological aspects of the traffic: public health; agriculture and the need for an alternative source of income; economics and the effect of the loss of the trade in opium on finance and econo mics,rather than on the criminal ramifications of the narcotics traffic. It is, in fact, important to remember that in underdeveloped countries, poverty and lack of health facilities, combined with the traditional use of opium for quasi-medical purposes, introduce a factor into consideration of a narcotics problem which is in fundamental distinction from the view taken in some other countries. Not vice or crime, but poverty and sickness, are the main objectives of action. The controlling body is therefore a multi-purpose body, which was designed to cover as completely as possible the whole field of action. The organization which works directly under this body has two functions. There is a central office in Tehran, which acts as a general secretariat to the controlling body. There are offices in ten prominent centres - Quum, Isfahan, Shiraz, Hamadan, Malayer, Kermanshah, Tabriz, Resht, Shahi and Meshed - which are designed to be centres of preventive activity in the areas where the poppy was most frequently cultivated in the past, or where addiction was most frequently found. In addition, there is a branch in the central office in Tehran which functions both as an intelligence centre and as a headquarters for preventive activity. The outstation offices, combined with the central office in Tehran, form a strategic network covering the nerve centres of illicit production and distribution, in addition to providing the organizations with administrative control. In this part of the organization, a staff of 577 is employed. In addition, there are 397 officers and men posted to smaller stations which are situated almost entirely on routes by which it is known that contraband may be carried. There are fifty-three of these stations, which now operate under the control of the Finance Agency of the ostan (district) in which they are placed. Finally, there is an Opium Branch in the Ministry of Health which ensures liaison with the controlling ministry.

The Government of Iran realized when the law was passed that they had a very heavy task on their hands, and that while the immediate impact of the law might be salutary - as indeed it was - a serious administrative effort would be needed in order that pressure, once applied, might be maintained. Greater experience was needed in the organization of such battles as had now been joined; more material had to be found, and funds were needed which were not available in the country. An application was therefore made to the United Nations for assistance: technical, financial and in respect of material. The assistance which was asked for was designed to cover the whole field in which the new law would operate: agriculture and help to the farmer; public health and the rehabilitation of addicts; propaganda and enforcement. It is the standard practice of the United Nations to give expert advice and to train the nationals of the country which asks for assistance, to enable them to continue to operate after receiving that advice. Funds and material in any considerable quantity are not usually available. The United Nations therefore arranged for advisers to be appointed in three fields: administration, agriculture and medicine; at the same time, a number of fellowships were offered to Iranian nationals for training in the special fields which were now opened up, such as the laboratory techniques for the recognition of types of opium. An adviser has also been appointed by the United States Overseas Missions, who has expert knowledge of narcotics enforcement administration. Limited material and funds have been made available by the United Nations, which are to be used in the field of propaganda and education.

In two years, there is a substantial record of achievement under the new law, and also no failure to recognize that there are difficulties which have not yet been solved, and that much remains to be done if the battle is to be sustained. It is evident that the most important single factor is the interdiction of cultivation. This has been remarkably successful, even in the present season, the third since the new law was passed. Personal observation, reports and statistics bear out the conclusion that there is little poppy cultivation, except in distant tracts in mountain valleys which are not easily accessible to the forces of government. Cultivation has been reduced from an estimated 20,000 hectares to practically nil. That this result owes a good deal to preventive action is shown by the figures of cultivation dealt with under the new law. Six thousand, eight hundred and twenty-one tracts were destroyed (the poppy cultivation was ploughed in), amounting in all to 581.43 hectares of land.

It is necessary to remember that in October 1955 there were stocks of illicit opium in the hands of traffickers. It is not known, for obvious reasons, what was the extent of these stocks. They have been estimated as being enough even for six years' use in the illicit market. It is sufficient to recognize that such stocks did exist, and that they are finding their way into the illicit market now. Pressure is being maintained on traffickers. But the price that can now be obtained - twenty or thirty times the price at which the Government of Iran is now selling for export from its stocks - is such that the financier and organizer of the traffic can still be sure of a substantial profit. In order that he may maintain his profit, there are signs that dilution is being used to a significant degree.

A recent large seizure of stick opium, made up to imitate the form in which opium was sold for local consumption by the Government before the passing of the new law, was estimated by experts of the department to contain not more than 10% of opium- 90% was adulteration. A mixture of dross with fresh opium is popular with addicts. It is stated that this mixture has more deleterious effects than pure opium. Seizures of opium and opium products in the last year amounted to over 1000 kg. In the last complete year before the passing of the new law, the weight of opium and opium products seized was a good deal more than this: it is fair to conclude that there is less opium in the illicit market than there was, but that pressure is needed to an acute degree. Enforcement of the law needs to be improved. Above all, investigation needs to be carried to a higher level, on which it may be possible to take action not against the carrier or the immediate user of a small quantity of opium, but against the financier and organizer who is responsible for the maintenance of the illicit traffic, with all its consequences on the health and the economy of the country.

It is good to know that the amount of Iranian opium that has found its way into the illicit market outside the country has been greatly reduced. Its place is being taken by opium which derives from other sources. The demand on the world illicit market remains, and the problem of stopping supply and checking illicit use is as much a problem in the international field as it has been in Iran; indeed, as it still is in Iran.

The interdiction of cultivation in Iran and success against illicit use of the drug are of little use unless supply from outside the country is also stopped. The fact is that the creation of a partial vacuum in supply, which has been filled in part by local traffickers, as has already been described, has given an opportunity to smugglers who deal in the produce of neighbouring countries. The problem is the more serious since much of the frontier of Iran consists of a difficult mountain and desert terrain the patrolling and guarding of which present many problems. The stand which has been taken by Iran in respect of its own supply contains a lesson for all producing countries.

The stocks held by the Monopoly Ministry of the Government of Iran represent a supply which will last for many years for medical and scientific purposes. They are held under strict control, and pass into consumption from time to time either on a requisition from the Ministry of Health - for internal consumption through Government hospitals - or by sale to a foreign government if there is a demand from abroad. The intention of the new law was that addicts should report themselves within six months. Government servants were to be examined, in order to see whether they had been habitual users of the drug, since addiction in a government servant was a sufficient ground for dismissal. Many government servants have been examined, and many members of the public have been treated both in government and private hospitals. But the position is far from satisfactory and far from clear. It is now held by the Ministry of Health that the figure of addicts given by Dr. Saleh at the time at which the new law was passed - 1,500,000 addicts out of a total population of about 19,000,000 - is perhaps an understatement. The figure may be as high as 2,000,000. It is true that the number of people who are found using the drug is still considerable, and it is true also that the number of people who have been treated at their own wish in government hospitals is far from insignificant- 40,000 in two years. Nevertheless, until there is a fairly firm statistical basis for proceeding to conclusions, the position in regard to addiction must be held to be obscure. It is certain that addiction was and still is a most serious problem. Its real extent can be discovered by the collection of accurate figures. For this purpose, as a beginning, the use of a form of report to be submitted by all authorities, hospitals, police, etc., who may have to do with addicts, has been proposed. A second step, when more information is available, may be to distinguish between addicts and users who are not strictly addicted to the drug. It has been stated again that a census of addicts is contemplated in one or two other countries having a similar problem. It may be that such a census could be attempted in Iran. Even if it were only partly successful, its results would go a long way towards throwing the light of factual information on a subject where information has so far been largely conjectural. This is not to minimize the known seriousness of the problem. It is a recognition of the fact that more statistical information is essential, in order that a full frontal attack on the problem may be organized.

It will be seen that the problems which have been raised by Iran's bold attempt to eradicate the opium evil are many and grave. The first step which was regarded as essential in order to deal with them was a review of the opium administration. The request for assistance which was made to the United Nations was in part for the appointment of an administrative adviser; in addition, as has been indicated, the services of an experienced narcotics police administrator have been secured from the United States Overseas Mission. The review of the narcotics organization which has been carried out has been thorough. It has covered basic organization; control; preventive work; inspection; training; pay and conditions of service; rewards; mobility; and the need for an improved investigation branch. No final conclusion has yet emerged from this review: whatever the conclusion may be, there is no doubt that it will be the result of a survey which has lacked nothing both in thoroughness and in good will. A more effective administration is bound to emerge. In addition, a statistical scheme has been suggested which, it is hoped, will improve both the statistical bases on which conclusions are founded in respect of work and organization in the country and statistical reporting to the United Nations. A renewed propaganda drive against opium has been suggested, which will use the radio and press, and will include the writing and printing of pamphlets for the public schools and colleges. A proposal to make use of the film as a medium of propaganda is also under consideration.

A study of agricultural problems is under way, in the hands of experts of the Food and Agriculture Organization, and it is expected that study of certain aspects of the many health problems which arise from the use and abuse of the drug will soon begin.

A detailed review of the frontier problem has been suggested, based on a plan for frontier control which, it is hoped, will not prove to be either too expensive or too complicated for use after it has been adapted to local conditions. It is generally recognized that an effective frontier system is a sine qua non of an effective administration.

Consideration of the various problems which have been outlined leads back inevitably to the questions of money and material which were raised at an early stage of action under the new law by the Government of Iran. Where money has been made available by the Government of Iran, as in the case of aid to farmers, proposals for its utilization have been suggested. But a basic difficulty in the whole treatment of the opium problem in Iran is financial, in the wider sphere. To modernize and expand the enforcement administration will be expensive; to improve the health administration, when the basic data to which allusion has been made are available, will be even more expensive. Here, too, there is the difficulty that doctors are not made in a moment, and that this is a specialized field of medicine: public health in the wider sense does need attention; but the cure and treatment of narcotics addicts is only a part of this huge field. The position at present is that investigation has been almost completed and data are being assembled: the stage of planning has been reached. At this stage, it is essential to see what resources can be made available locally. If those resources are not adequate, the problem comes into the international field. The Government of Iran has spared no effort to realize its problems; it will make the utmost use of local resources, but it may be necessary to place the problem open to international consideration if these resources are insufficient.

One word dominates the whole picture: poverty. Drug addiction does not arise in a limited criminal class in connexion with criminal activities. It is found anywhere in the nation - among farm workers, factory workers, truck drivers, labourers, restaurant employees. It may arise from sickness or pain, or simply from disgust with life. Addiction is found in most age groups; but exists particularly amongst able-bodied workers of all types. A low standard of living, and working conditions which need much reform, combine with ill-health to create a climate in which opium seems like the gift of the gods to ill-used humanity. This is not a condition which is peculiar to Iran. It is found in most underdeveloped countries. It is significant that in such countries in the Middle East and the East there is usually a narcotics problem. It is not merely the poverty of the great mass of the people which dominates the problem, although this poverty is a basic cause. It is also the poverty of resources of the country. A modem administration needs trained manpower and expensive equipment. The effectiveness of the work of any administration is limited by the standards of working and of training of its personnel, and by the manner in which they are equipped for the special tasks for which they are employed. Even in developed countries, the fight to obtain the manpower and the machine-power that is needed for the many tasks which now devolve upon a government is far from easy. It is the more difficult in a country which has far more limited resources; on which from the very nature of its position there is a far more extensive set of demands.

A great effort has been made in Iran; the stage is set for a determined continuance of the effort. The future will depend on three factors. First, the long-term provision of expert aid, until a stage has been reached at which planning is completed and the training of the local officers has come to the point at which they can take over the whole task; second, the training of Iranian officers both abroad and in Iran, in numbers and to a stage of efficiency which will enable them to undertake the work; and third, the provision of such equipment as mature consideration indicates to be essential by aid, where the Iranian Government is unable to make the necessary provision from its own resources. This issue will inevitably be raised again. Indeed, it must come up at various stages in the working out of the continued battle against opium, as needs are found; as smugglers think out fresh means of working which need fresh counters from the side of the Government; and as greater knowledge accrues in the spheres of public health and agriculture. The way cannot be easy, and there is no promise of success either soon or finally. The struggle will go on. It is a matter for deep satisfaction that the battle was engaged, and that it has been so well maintained up to the present time. It is not merely in the interest of Iran that it should be equally well maintained in the future, but in that of the whole world.