Saturday, July 26, 2008

Drugs and Sport - an Iranian Tale

The assumption in the west, I imagine, is that there are few users of hard drugs inside the Islamic Republic of Iran and that those caught are are routinely beheaded or at least loose a limb.

The experience of Abbas Amir-Mafi, however, tells a quite different story.

Born in the south of Tehran, Abbas was addicted to opium by the age of 12, having started drinking alcohol about age 6. He was until a few years ago one of several hundred thousand drug users in the country, Iran having one of the highest levels of opiate abuse in the world.

After years trying to break free of the addiction, Abbas was put in contact with Congress 60, an Iranian non-profit organisation which uses sport to help addicts. Uniquely among Iran's other drug treatment providers, Congress 60 does not use methadone but advocates instead a gradual reduction of the narcotic alongside a programme of sporting activities to help develop personal and life skills.

Head of the organisation, Engineer Dezhakam (himself a recovering addict) introduced Abbas 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."

Remarkably, Abbas now competes as part of Iran's national team and says that "I hope one day to compete abroad." He trains for 6-7 hours a day and is drug free. His story raises interesting questions about the opportunities for those who have misused drugs in their past to not only rehabilitate but also to take part in competitive sport at an international level - an issue highlighted in the UK by the recent attempt by Dwain Chambers to overturn the BDA's ban on him participating in the Beijing Olympics this summer.

Over the years, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, 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 there is a growing level of cooperation with the relevant government ministries.

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