Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Shisheh Problem

October 29th, 2009 · 7 Comments

IranCrystalMethGiven Iran’s reputation for dispensing harsh justice, it surprised us to learn that the country is home to a thriving crystal-meth industry—one so big, in fact, that it’s now exporting to Southeast Asia. As the United Nations graph at right makes clear, use of the drug (locally known as shisheh, or glass) has exploded since 2004. An Iranian expat gives a first-hand account of the problem here:

Every time I come to Iran I am shocked by the rather open and public use and sale of illicit drugs. The main reason I can think of why this might be is sheer numbers. There are just too many to round up. Last time I was in Tehran, the area where Naser Khosrow empties into Tupkhuneh was practically an open-air drug market in broad daylight. People would first approach and ask if I needed prescription drugs, then “shisheh” (crystal meth), then ecstasy. Right next to a ministry building of all places! A few days later I was walking along the Parkway towards Velenjak and I happened to peek up at the hillside which has some tree and brush cover. There might have been 10-15 people shooting up there.

A 2007 piece claims that a gram of crystal goes for $120 in Tehran, which makes it a drug of the rich—quite a reversal from the situation in the U.S., where meth is commonly considered a cheap alternative to cocaine.

The question now is “why?” Iran obviously has the right demographics for soaring drug use—an exceedingly young population, high unemployment, but also a developing middle class looking to fill some spiritual or intellectual holes (or just fill up some free time). But we also feel that the regime is loath to even admit there’s a problem, as they view drugs—and meth in particular—as something only decadent Westerners could ever fall for. Mounting a public campaign against illicit drugs would first require admitting there’s a problem. And so the regime totters on, willfully oblivious to the toll.

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7 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    Sounds a lot like the problems Russia and China have had admitting to their problems with HIV.

    I wonder why the cost is so much higher? I don’t know the details of the embargos in place around Iran, but I wouldn’t think that pharmaceuticals would be on that list. Given how much ephedrine and pseudoephedrine is made in India, a cheap supply pipeline would seem dead easy to set up. Getting your hands on enantiomerically pure precursors is really the hardest part of the process. That’s why the availability of meth in America has been so strongly correlated with the ability of those two compounds.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Good question. Couple of thoughts that spring immediately to mind:

    *Do draconian punishments deter risk-taking? I’d wager that if you’re caught operating a meth lab in Iran, your odds of escaping the judicial system alive are slim to none. As such, production is probably limited to corrupt sections of the country where criminals enjoy official protection (via bribes, familial connections, etc.)

    *Iran’s economy is very much a state-controlled affair. That means there are probably very few small chemical supply companies that can sell precursors out the back.

    *Constant Internet surveillance makes it harder for chemical dealers and meth cooks to link up in cyberspace.

    In Microkhan’s dreams, there’s a expert on Iranian crime in the audience who can offer a more informed take. Are you out there, kind sir/madam?

  • Brian Moore

    It’s interesting that crystal meth is “shisheh” in Iran, when “shisha” is the word for hookah (but in the US I guess it refers only to the tobacco), but both mean glass. I assume there’s some inflection or context that allows the speaker to differentiate.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Ah, yes–knew I’d heard that word (or a variation thereof) before. As much as many Iranians may fancy themselves a breed apart from their Arab neighbors, there’s obviously been a lot of linguistic cross-pollination between Farsi and Arabic.

    As an aside, I discovered on my Kenya trip that Farsi and Pashto are closer cousins than I ever imagined. The Iranians and Afghans I encountered were able to converse with one another, despite not really knowing each other’s tongues. Sort of like a Spanish/Portuguese dealie, I reckon.

  • Brian Moore

    Wow, interesting. According to the wikipedia article, apparently this was a Farsi -> Arabic switch.

    “Shisha (شيشة), from the Persian word shīshe (شیشه), meaning glass, is the common term for the hookah in Egypt and the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf (including Kuwait, Iraq, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, UAE, and Saudi Arabia), and in Morocco, Tunisia, Somalia and Yemen.”

    Apparently Iranians themselves now (or maybe always) have their own word for hookah, but the above Arabic speakers appropriated it.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    This cross-cultural appropriation gives me hope for the future. If Sunnis and Shiites can cordially share names for the tools of recreational drug use, perhaps they can make things work in Mesopotamia, too.

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