The rising drug issue in Iran

Overdose is becoming widely experienced amongst drug users in Iran, and new research is hoping to address this issue, writes Shazma Gafffoor

Drug use is one of the prevailing issues the world is facing today and not only affects the user, but also their families and the wider community. In recent years, Iran’s drug use has escalated, fuelled by a strong illegal cross-border drug trade with Afghanistan, the largest producer of opium in the world.

“The World Health Organization (WHO) states that Iran has one of the highest number of people using opiates in the world today,” says Associate Professor Peter Higgs from the School of Psychology and Public Health at La Trobe University. “That’s about three times the global average, which is a concerning issue.”

Associate Professor Higgs has been collaborating with Iranian researchers for the last 5 years and has recently published on the issue of non-fatal overdose of drugs among people who inject drugs in Tehran, Iran.

“When I was first asked to collaborate with local researchers in Iran on this project, I was surprised at the extent of alcohol consumption they had recorded,” says Associate Professor Higgs. “Iran is a predominantly Islamic country where consuming alcohol is prohibited. They had surveyed and interviewed 470 males attending drop-in centres for help with various drug issues and realised overdose was widely being experienced.”

Dr Bahram Armoon, a collaborator from Iran’s Saveh University of Medical Sciences said that people who use illicit drugs before the age of 20 were twice as likely to report experiencing an overdose.

“Methamphetamine and alcohol are often used together by about 25 percent of participants in this study,” Dr Armoon says. “This has serious implications for potential overdose among people using drugs in this setting.”

The feedback to participants is an ongoing process. Collaborators are also working with drop-in centres to offer services for people using drugs in street-based environments, providing sterile injecting equipment as well as meals.

“I think we can make a big difference introducing programs that help people to reduce the harms associated with their drug use,” says Associate Professor Higgs. “There are some really exciting young researchers who are doing some great work in Iran and I’m really happy to be in a position to be able to support them.”

Associate Professor Higgs has found the results of the research from Iran comparable to his own study with Master Public Health student Alice David conducting qualitative interviews with people using opiates who have never overdosed.

“One of the biggest learnings I take from talking to people who use drugs is that they are no different to anyone else and there’s a whole range of other things that are going on in their lives that have nothing to do with drug use” says Associate Professor Higgs. “There is a lot that we can learn about resilience from people who use drugs as they can often bear the brunt of stigma from the general community”.