Inside Baghdad’s Ibn Rushd hospital are wards populated by male patients, old and young, battling drug and substance addictions. The hospital provides recovery services, but the misery of sufferers is kept out of sight and few possess the faith to let their tales be heard. The lasting imprint of wars, old and continuing, potentiates these habits. As a relief from suffering and with the degeneration of once sturdy belief systems, hundreds and thousands have turned to hard drugs.
A cauldron of illicit drugs covers all 14 of Iraq’s provinces with narcotics most visible in Basra where methamphetamine has emerged as a local staple. Some place the usage of meth here — or crystal as it’s known locally — at 62.1 per cent of the country’s consumption, as reports by The New Arab show.
The meth boom in Basra can be explained by the port city’s strategic position as it is able to handle the steady flow of goods and illicit drugs entering the country. Trafficking gangs are not strangers to using Basra as a transit point to sustain the expansion of the narcotics trade in the region.
Gangs in neighbouring Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan have no doubt toyed with the idea of using Iraq as a gateway for drugs consignments that Saddam Hussein’s toppling made possible in 2003. For them, the Iraqi arena is particularly profitable and it’s where drug Czars can capitalise on the need of young people to numb the pain and grief of war. The nightmare this poses is difficult for local security forces to combat as they are split between those aiding and abetting traffickers and those disgraced by the phenomenon but ill-equipped to fight it alone.
In Samawah alone a total of 600 dealers reside in the province according to jurist Wael Abdul Latif. In the decades before 2003 the Iraqi arena was clean of drugs: “one of the very few regional states that could claim that drug abuse was not a problem in society,” security consultant Mustafa Al-Ani expressed years ago, citing “strict laws” and “severe punishment” by the Baath regime as the reason for this. However, the security gap America’s invasion opened up caused a near-complete reversal of the past Al-Ani describes.
Indications of heroin trafficked from Iraq mentioned in the 2015 World Drug Report, speaks of the effectiveness of organised networks that operate along the east-west axis and the weakness of internal security and the inability to patrol Iraq’s unmanned borders.
Statics on the problem might be inconclusive but the protracted nature of drug abuse confirms predictions made by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in late 2003 that drug trafficking would increase. In Afghanistan opium generates one third of Afghanistan’s economic output, underscoring the need for its continuation and expansion in the minds of local narcotics actors.
Drug gangs are notably active in Iraq’s shrine cities of Karbala and Najaf, where there have been major seizures in the last 13 years. Drug-trafficking gangs enter these cities disguised as pilgrims, distributing heroin, hashish and amphetamine pills from Afghanistan, through Iran. Near weekly seizures are reported locally.
There is no one culprit but a convergence of actors and Iranian, Afghani, Iraqi and Turkish cartels. Shipments from Afghanistan pass through Iran into Iraq, bound for Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and even European markets. Rising levels of drug dependency are also felt in Jordan, with the entry of hashish and opium. Jordan’s public security directorate (PSD), as quoted by the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (2006), conceded that 28 seizures at the Iraqi border occurred in 2005.
These menacing developments cannot be divorced from pervasive corruption and the rise of international terrorism, both of which are fed by drug-related proceeds. Expansive illicit networks are also working to satisfy multiple demands. Captagon tablets to enhance battle performance, intoxicants for Gulf-bound expat and local communities in the region, prescription drug abuse to feed the habits of Iraqi soldiers as reported in The New York Times in 2008, and above all else, the need for hard cash.
A US State Department report from 2013 rued Iraq’s leadership for failure to “devote significant resources to drug cases,” but unverified images and Twitter posts allege that Iraq’s special forces were dispatched last weekend to southern Iraq to combat the drug trade in southern Iraq.
The funds needed to build public rehabilitation services are lacking and rarely considered; it is a priority eclipsed by defence spending. The high potential for abuse of certain drugs, for example meth, will crush the educational potential of Iraq’s millennials.
“Meth of course boosts dopamine levels and gives users a certain rush – the bigger problem are withdrawal symptoms. Addiction happens very quickly and weaning yourself is not without numerous challenges,” Dr Usama, director of Ibn Rushd rehabilitation hospital told Sumaria news.
Relapse, he added, is as much of an uphill struggle as the addiction and threatens to render an entire generation inoperative at a time when their contribution to national growth has never been needed more.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.