Substance Abuse Among Iranian Youth

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The Iranian Deputy Secretary General for Drugs, Mr Taheri, has said that the US, Canada and the UK are responsible for drug abuse among Iranian youth.[1]

Drug use/abuse is a significant mental health crisis in Iran. Opium is culturally supported in Iran, as there is cultural tolerance for tobacco smoking, particularly water pipe smoking. Alcohol, opium and cannabis are the most regularly used illegal drugs, but there are new emerging problems with anabolic steroids, ecstasy and stimulant substances, for instance crystal methamphetamine.

There is a critical drug abuse crisis among Iranian high school students, street children and generally Iranian youth and adolescents. This may be due to role modelling by parents – mostly fathers – and also cultural tolerance of some substances. Under age smoking of tobacco, at a rate between 4.4% and 12.8% among high school students per day, is a significant risk factor for other drug abuse. Use of all types of drugs is more common among boys. Alcohol is the most frequently abused substance, with a lifetime rate of at least 9.9% drinking to levels that cause significant health damage. Lifetime rates of opiate use – mostly opium – are between 1.2 and 8.6% in different parts of Iran. As opiate use is a common problem among Iranian youth, particularly high school students and street children, it is essential to plan and apply drug prevention programs to protect them.[2]

A study of 200 addicts attending the Rehabilitation Centre in Shiraz was carried out after the 1979 Iranian Revolution had disturbed both drug supply and addict treatment programs. The survey demonstrated that clinics were, after the revolution, seeing a broader social range of addicts than before; and that action by the authorities was bringing many recently addicted individuals to clinics. Heroin use predominated among those who were urban residents, whilst villagers were more likely to be opium use.[3]

In 2008, a member of the parliament announced that there is a serious risk of addiction among young girls and women, and asked the parliamentarians to shoulder more responsibility. He expressed worries about the next generation that will be brought up by such mothers.

According to official statistics, there are 1,200,000 permanent addicts, and 80,000 temporary addicts in Iran, and it is increasing at a rate of 5% to 8% per year. Iran is home to the highest instances of drug abuse in the world. The increase in the number of addicts is three times more than the increase in the population. About 3% of Iranian adolescences are addicted while the price of crystal methamphetamine decreased dramatically from 1,800,000,000 Rials in 2002 to just 10,000,000Rials in 2011.[4]

The root cause of 70% of social problems in Mashhad is addiction. It should be noted that in Mashhad access to the drugs takes an average of 22 minutes while access to sports locations takes an average of 45 minutes.[5]

More than 70% of addicts, started to abuse drugs due to social conditions.[6] It seems that today, there are much more social and cultural factors for addiction than individual ones; hence, as a sociologist, I suggest social and cultural remedies along with individual treatments. It takes more time, but preventive measures are more effective than treatment alone. This article asserts that the time has come to tackle addiction instead of addicts.

As it will be made clear below, today in Iran addiction is mostly a social disease, and not purely a crime, and therefore addicts have to be treated as patients and not offenders. Unfortunately, the politicians and the community typically consider addicts as convicts not victims, and instead of altering the social and cultural conditions in which the disease of addiction develops and grows, they try to eliminate addicts from society.

Theoretical framework

There are three theoretical frameworks that seem to be compatible in explaining the problem and helping to find the solutions.

First, <rnd:error><rnd:code>unknown-style</rnd:code><rnd:message>unknown character span style "Emphasis" encountered</rnd:message></rnd:error>(13 December 1902-8 May 1979) considers youth violence and nonconformity with social norms and describes structural factors in family and the job market in modern urban communities.[7] According to Parsons, the sense of security is limited to the childhood period, when children receive their parents’ unconditional love. Upon entering adulthood, personal capabilities are a factor in attaining success.[8] Entrance into community requires the acceptance of new responsibility, for which the youth are not prepared. Inadequacy in achieving social ambitions is a source of feeling incapable following by feeling insecure and unjust treatment.

On the other hand, the youth do not believe that they are responsible for their own incapability, and their annoyance targets adults who were not honest with them; therefore, they lose their trust in others and withdraw from the community. As family is considered a holy institution, they direct their anger towards the society and stand against social morality and norms, and the most frequent form of rebellion is drug abuse.

The second theory is the viewpoint of Edwin H. Sutherland (August 13, 1883 - October 11, 1950) who states that crime is an abnormal behaviour, which is explained in the same way that normal behaviour, is explained. The process through which a criminal learns crime from the “significant others” is the same as learning normal behaviour. The difference is in the content and not the process of learning; Sutherland rejects the concept of “social disorganization” and suggests “differential organization.”[9] In his opinion, in heterogeneous and plural communities, some groups are based on social and cultural norms and some others are centred on the offenses. He suggests that criminal behaviour is learnable and is learned through the process of cross-communication interaction. He also says that the “differential organizations” can be changed in terms of abundance, priority, intensity, and duration.[10] While criminal behaviour is the representative of common norms, values and requirements; it cannot be clarified through them. He undeniably states that crime is learned through sociological organizations.

The third theoretical view is that of Albert K. Cohen’s (June 15, 1918). He is famous for his sub-cultural theory of delinquent urban gangs, as well as his significant book Delinquent Boys: Culture of the Gang (1958).

According to Cohen, the main condition for forming a sub-culture is “the interaction among actors who are compatible with similar challenges.” Lower class children are asked to adapt to their teachers’ middle class criteria. The lower class children, who cannot follow these criteria, will be disappointed, because their family background has not prepared them for such a competition. Despite the fact that Cohen’s theory is aimed at explaining the causes for lower class children delinquency, nevertheless, the main idea is helpful. It states that delinquency behaviours are rooted in failing to follow the middle class or sociological criteria of success.

All these theories explain delinquency and crime, but the main idea that this article points to is that drug abuse is a sociological problem, and the specific conditions in Iran make it even more sociological.

Below, several factors are described that make drug abuse more probable as well as sociological. They were collected during personal research and also through Iranian formal and informal reports and conferences.

These factors are reported as separate points. Of course, it is impossible to describe all causes and conditions or simply reduce the reasons to social and cultural ones. However, since the approach of this article is sociological, it considers only this type of analysis.

The conditions and situations that facilitate drug abuse

  1. Lack of access to employment

  2. Too much leisure time

  3. Cheap and abundant drugs

  4. Positive attitude towards opiate substances effects

  5. Psychological, social and cultural frustration

  6. Anomie[11]

  7. Quick social transformations

  8. Educational weaknesses in training individuals to practice self control

  9. Lack of education in schools and curriculum about the effects of long-term drug abuse

  10. The weakness of the foundations of religion, which guarantees the social norms and values as well as the purpose of life

  11. Lack of opportunity for dialogue and consultation and referral to psychologists or pathologists

  12. Weak family ties

  13. Heterogeneity in the government's policies toward drug abuse

  14. General depression

  15. Poor social monitoring

  16. Multiplicity and variety of values

  17. Constantly adapting to a rapidly changing society

  18. Instability of identity

  19. Fragmented community; we do not have an organic society in Iran

  20. Devastating impact of mass media on integrity of identity

Solutions and suggestions

In light of the focus of this article the main basis of drug abuse in Iran is structural; hence, the solutions are also structural, social and cultural.

Drug abuse is not just a single problem; it is a part of social problems and diseases stemming from deeper problems in a community. I call the deeper disease, “lack of social consensus.” The gap between the state and nation has led to the gap between the nation and the values and norms that are promoted by mass media and state agents, such as religious and traditional institutions which are supposed to be state-based. This gap has led to politicization as well. Politicization has deepened the gap; and this loop continues on.

To end this loop, it is necessary to improve and authorize civil institutions, such as NGOs, through which social interactions and cross-communications can regularly take place.

These NGOs can perform regular training programs to compensate for the lack of formal education in schools on dangers of drug abuse and addiction. NGOs can attract volunteers from among the youth in order to conduct participatory action research and activities to train, inform, empower, recover and warn the youth about the effects of drug abuse.

Interaction through cultural and ritual activities conducted by NGOs in accordance with the youth’s preferences and requirements can reinforce a sense of belonging to an integrated and cohesive community which in turn leads to social consensus. Through these activities they can compensate for the lack of common and shared values and norms.

The youth also have to experience adequacy in attaining success. The major factor through which they may lose this feeling is disparity between their own norms and values and general norms and values. This coordination is essential in obtaining the social position necessary for employment and identity.

The NGOs are also able to train families about the requirements of interaction with adolescents and youth.


It appears that the Iranian government is not serious in its efforts to support the youth against drug abuse and does not have a significant program for prevention of addiction among adolescents and youth. Consequently, NGOs have to face structural and social shortcomings and failures.

In effect, the way to treatment and prevention of addiction in Iran is through education and advancement of the Iranian perspective on drugs.

[1] ILNA. (10. January 2010). Social News. Aftab News:

[2] Momtazi, S., & Rawson, R. (May 2010). Substance abuse among Iranian high school students. Current opinion on psychiatry:

[3] Dalvand, S., Agahi, C., & Spencer, C. (9. March 2004). Drug addicts seeking treatment after the iranian revolution: A clinic-based study. ScienceDirect:

[4] Meaning 0.005 of its original price. See: Shojaee, K.

[6] Ismaeili, H. (2 2008). Addiction disease.

[7] Assosiation, I. S. (2010). Iran Social Damage. Tehran: Agah.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Sheikhavandi, D. (2005). Sociology of Deviance and societal Problems of Iran. Tehran: Qatreh

[10] Ibid.

[11] A state or condition of individuals or society characterized by a breakdown or absence of social norms and values, as in the case of uprooted people.

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