Islamic Republic of Iran

Former drug user now top athlete in Iran

25 July 2008 - Five years ago, Abbas Amir-Mafi was one of Iran's hundreds of thousands of drug users; hooked on opium at 12, kicked out of home and feeding his habit with odd jobs. Thanks to treatment, he is now a member of the national archery team, trains 6-7 hours per day and is drug free. Drug dependence treatment programmes work.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is strongly affected by harsh drug realities and the country has some of the world's highest opiate addiction rates. Although Abbas was fortunate to find a suitable treatment programme and defeat his addiction, this is not the case for all drug addicts.

Abbas was introduced to opium by friends in his south Tehran community. "I looked big for my age and mixed with older kids," he says. "I started experimenting with alcohol when I was around 6 or 7, and was drinking regularly by the time I was 9. When we couldn't get a hold of alcohol we started taking opium instead. It was easily available and cheap."

Initially he smoked the drug, but shifted to eating it as this was less conspicuous. He also smoked hashish socially with friends.

"Opium was like a medicine for me," he says. "In the beginning it gave me high energy levels and made me hyperactive, which felt great. But after several years, the effect of the drugs can be seen in your face and in body changes, and you need higher amounts of narcotics to get the same feelings. Your habit gets more expensive as your consumption increases."

He financed his habit first with pocket money from his parents, then with earnings from short-term jobs. By the age of 18, he was spending around 800,000 rials (roughly US$ 90) per week on drugs.

Abbas spent years trying to break free from drugs but only succeeded after his sister put him in touch with Congress 60, a non-profit organization which uses sport to help addicts. The organization advocates a gradual cut in consumption alongside sporting activities to develop new skills and another life focus. Unlike other facilities in Iran, it does not use methadone treatment.

The head of the organization, Engineer Dezhakam, himself a recovering addict, introduced him to archery. "I didn't like it in the beginning," he says. "The daily practice was tough. But I began to see improvement after a month and realized I could do it. Now I get to compete with international sportsmen who come to Iran. I hope one day to compete abroad."

Now, Abbas is positive about his life and says he does not miss drugs nor has any fear he will use again. He now works for Congress 60, mentoring drug users undergoing treatment.

"I went from being someone others looked down on, to being a role model for young people," he says. "My story is a positive lesson for teenagers on how you can change."

Over the years, the Government of Iran has shifted from a predominantly restrictive drug policy toward a strategy that gives importance to demand and harm reduction. A growing number of NGOs provide treatment and cooperation with the relevant ministries is increasing.

UNODC is supporting the Government and providing assistance for the implementation of internationally-approved treatment and rehabilitation techniques. It places special emphasis on empowering grass-roots NGOs and fostering their collaboration with government entities.