By Babak Dehghanpisheh
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Women in headscarves and men in tatty clothes puff on a glass pipe as smoke swirls around their faces. The pictures published by Iranian media and blogs in recent months are a sign of a new drug epidemic: shishe, or methamphetamine.
Shishe means "glass" in Farsi, a reference to the appearance of the drug in some of its purest forms.
In less than a decade, methamphetamine use has skyrocketed in Iran to the point where now about 345,000 Iranians are considered addicts, according to official statistics.
Seizures of methamphetamine soared 128 percent between 2008 and 2012, topping all other countries in the region, according to figures compiled by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Last year alone, the government of Iran confiscated 3.6 tonnes of shishe.
A top official from the Iran Drug Control Headquarters said last year that shishe could be found in Tehran in "less than five minutes," according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency.
Shishe addicts in Iran are mostly urban, middle class and young, experts say. Notably, there are a large number of women who abuse shishe, too.
One of the main reasons why shishe use has spread quickly in Iran is a lack of information about the drug, which has led casual users to believe, erroneously, that it is not addictive, experts say.
Struggling university students have begun abusing it to stay up longer and try to boost their performance in school. Women have been sold the drug in beauty salons with the promise that it will help them lose weight, according to local media reports.
"We really had a hard time convincing people that this is addiction," said Azaraksh Mokri, a psychiatrist who teaches at the Tehran University of Medical Sciences and has dealt extensively with the issue of shishe addiction.
Opium addiction has long been a problem in Iran partly because of a tolerance for its use even in conservative rural areas, and also because of the country's long border with Afghanistan, for decades one of the top opium producers. Opium is still the most abused drug in Iran, according to official statistics.
Shishe began to make inroads in the country about a decade ago, luring users who preferred its effects as a stimulant to the more soporific opium, which was seen as a drug of the poor and elderly.
That shift has been characterized as a change between drugs which are known as sonati, or traditional, and those that are sanaati, or manufactured, according to local media.
The use of shishe was partly driven by increased development in the country and more complicated and faster-paced lifestyles, experts say.
Initially, the drug was imported but it later began to be produced locally. UNODC figures show that the domestic use of pseudoephedrine, one of the key ingredients for making shishe, jumped from five tonnes in 2006 to 55 tonnes in 2012.
Drug use and addiction is so prevalent in Iran that it is the second highest cause of death in the country after traffic accidents, a senior official from the Iran Drug Control Headquarters said in early November, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency.
Iran has some of the harshest drug laws in the region, regularly executing smugglers and drug peddlers. At the same time, the country has had a degree of success in the treatment of addiction, experts say.
"Shishe is something that in a short time, in comparison to other things, has very severe effects on behavior," said Said Kafrashi, an advisory physician and therapist at the Aayandeh addiction rehabilitation clinic in Tehran.
The clinic often tries to bring families of shishe addicts into the rehabilitation process in order to examine all the social factors that may have led to the drug use.
"The family plays a role here," said Kafrashi. "In light of the individual's behavior, the family needs to change their behavior too."
Still, despite some success in the treatment of shishe addiction, Iran's battle with the drug is far from over.
"We need to do something so that they don't die, don't kill themselves, don't kill others, and don't get psychosis so they can mature out and get out," said Mokri.
(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh; additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; editing by Giles Elgood)