Psyche Spinner: Iran's Poorest on Drugs

07/01/2010 12:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

My mother just returned to Iran. When she called this morning I thought she was just calling to inform me of her safe arrival. Instead, her voice was shaking. Fatemeh Khanoom, the woman who cleans my mother's house and whom I had written about for women's day, was there bearing the news that her husband had gone insane. "Why?" I asked my mother, she replied, "You know how he was an opium addict?" I answer yes. "Well," my mom continued, "he took a pill the dealer gave him called Ravangardan (psyche spinner) and he went insane. He broke everything in the house and went on the rooftop yelling at the top of his voice." She added, "Fekr konam hamoon LSDieh. I think it is that LSD."

I was shocked and upset that poor Fatemeh Khanoom, who is working hard to support her addict husband and her precocious school-aged son, was once again suffering at the hands of the former. I asked my mother to calm down and pass the phone to Fatemeh.

She took the phone and congratulated me for my son's graduation. This woman, who cannot read or write but who, despite all her problems, is still so extremely gracious and civil made me feel ashamed of my own spoiled impatience with the world. After telling her that my son kisses her hand and sends his thanks, I asked her to explain what happened.

Her husband was not home when she got back to the outskirts of Karaj from her day's work in Tehran. She was used to him disappearing every once in a while only to come back home totally high. These were the times when he would use the strong heroin sold on the streets of Tehran. I had met her husband and he had told me the story of his drug addiction. He recounted to me rather boastfully that he had been a heroin addict before he had gone to Kerman with his wife -- who comes from a village of opium addicts there -- and weaned himself off of heroin using opium. From then on he had started eating opium because he could not afford to consume it by smoking.

Sometime in the middle of one night Fatemeh got a call from the police, who asked her to come and take her husband. He was scarred from a fall, she guessed, and was talking nonsense. A policeman charged her 8000 toomans (around $8) to get him home in a hired car. When he came home he broke everything he could of their meager belongings. For the past week he has been going through bouts of silence followed by violent and strange behavior. "He goes on the roof and yells, he talks to imaginary guests," says Fatemeh in a monotone that betrays the kind of resignation stemming from repeated misfortune.

"What did he take?" I asked. "The police and his friends say it was Ravangardan." "What is that?" I inquired. "It is a pill that the dealer gave him." I asked her why she does not ask their local mosque for help; she replies that they don't help addicts. I asked her if she can take him to a mental clinic; she said they told her that he was not 'crazy' enough. When I inquire if are any rehab clinics for him, she answers, "there are 'camps' where they take addicts but one has to pay 150,000 toomans (around $150) for them and he has to sign himself in, which he refuses to do." She tells me she can't make him. I asked Fatemeh if the police had any advice. "No," she said, "they said if you file a complaint it will cost you up to 25,000 toomans and he will get away anyway. These people only keep those for whom they can charge a lot of money in order to release; they don't detain poor people for long." She would have liked them to have kept him at least for the night.

I called a friend of mine who is well versed in these matters and had just come back from Tehran a couple of weeks ago. I asked him if he has heard of a drug named Ravangardan. He told me that he has not but that it could be what people in South Tehran call Ecstasy or LSD. I asked him if it is true that there has been a recent flooding of the market with drugs, and he told me yes. A couple of years ago, my friend informed me that Crystal Meth (or Shisheh as Iranians call it) went 100,000 toomans for one gram. Today it costs only 10,000 toomans.

"Ever since the post-election unrest, they dropped the price so that the youth would get high and not take to the streets in protest." I asked him who is 'they', and he replied, "everyone knows that it is the Sepah (IRGC) that sells drugs in Iran." My friend went on to tell me that cocaine was very difficult to find five years ago in Tehran, but it is now readily available for 100,000 toomans a gram. "And it is good coke, they say they get it from Indonesia," he said. "Indonesia? I did not think they produced cocaine there," I said. He told me, "I don't know, that is what everyone says. Maybe they get it from South America; they have good friends there!" South Tehran, with a much poorer population, is on Shisheh while North Tehranis prefer cocaine.

When I lived in Iran during the presidency of Khatami I witnessed widespread use of opium. The traditional Iranian drug that used to be the pastime of older men is now being used by younger men and women. Those who could not afford the more expensive habit of opium smoking took to either eating it or doing the much cheaper and more lethal heroin that came from Pakistan. I remember seeing a man deliver drugs in a brief case at a friend's party. When he left I asked what he had brought and my friend replied, "Grass from the Caspian. He also has Ecstasy that they make right here in Iran." I was shocked that they grew grass in the Caspian region for commercial use and that in Iran, where you could get lashed for drinking a beer, they made Ecstasy pills! My friend told me that the bearded man in the black shirt who delivered the drug had every drug imaginable in his brief case. When I asked why he was not afraid to go around Tehran with a briefcase full of drugs in broad daylight, she informed me that he was a bassij (paramilitary soldier) who securely delivered drugs to the affluent north Tehranis with his motorcycle!

I don't know what will happen to Fatemeh khanoom's husband, but she is living proof that the very poor, that analysts claim make up Ahmadinejad's constituency, are as discontented with the regime as the middle class supporters of the opposition. Perhaps they share with the affluent classes, living in fancy apartments in North Tehran, a paralysis caused by not only the might of the hardliner's weapons but the free flow of their drugs.