Iran's Islamic regime may have harsh penalties for drug trafficking, but officials are now estimating that the number of "regular drug users" has doubled in the past six years, from 1.3 million to about 2.8 million.

The head of the country's drug control organization, Parviz Afshar, told Iran's ISNA news agency that currently "about 2.8 million" Iranians (in a country of 80 million) were regular users, of which 67% were hooked on traditional opium and eight percent on newer synthetic drugs. Afshar said the figures were estimates based on recent studies on a sample population of 60,000.

The public is skeptical of official figures on social vices

Agence France-Presse reports that underlying Iran's rising drug use may be its geography. The country lies between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where drugs are cultivated and produced, and Western consumers, making it a key transit route as well as a first market for a range of drugs.

The Tehran-based daily Aftab-e Yazd, suggested this week that the public was skeptical of official figures on "social vices" like drug use or divorce, suspecting that the government often lowers the totals to avoid social alarm or contempt. The distrust, the newspaper writes, increased when the conservative government led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made drug use figures confidential in 2002.

The publication cited the Tehran-based sociologist Ardeshir Geravand who stated that it was difficult to calculate the precise number of addicts — or to define them clearly — but that there could be as many as five to seven million addicts in Iran.