The southern Iraqi city of Basra is struggling to cope with a growing drug problem that has overcrowded prisons and strained police resources, only months after violent protests over poor municipal services.
Basra’s prison system is clogged up. On a recent day in one police station, Reuters reporters saw about 150 men, their heads shaved, squatting in two small, cramped holding cells.
Arrests of drug users and dealers have shot up in the past year, further stretching prison services and police.
“Drugs spread because the youth are lost, they have no money, they are sick of life. It’s escapism,” Major Shaker Aziz, a senior member of Basra police narcotics unit, told Reuters.
“Prison authorities tell us: ‘90 per cent of inmates are convicted on drug charges, stop sending them.’ So we keep them here,” Aziz said of the holding cells.
The situation in prisons, worsened by a lack of treatment centres for recovering addicts, highlights the contrast between the wealth Basra province produces – its oil contributes over 90 per cent of state revenues – and its poor living conditions.
Once known as the Venice of the East, Basra city, which has a population of four million, lacks clean water and does not have enough electricity to power air conditioners in the scorching summer heat. Unemployment is widespread, especially among youth.
Thousands protested against the conditions, unemployment and corruption last summer, when searing heat made matters worse and hundreds were treated in hospital after drinking unclean water. Protesters set ablaze government buildings and political groups’ headquarters and clashed with police.
Officials fear a repeat of the violence this year, and while the drug problem is a concern in several areas of Iraq, Basra suffers from it the most.
The number of drug arrests has risen year-on-year since 2015, Aziz said. By March, police had picked up 15 kilogrammes of illegal drugs this year, half of 2018’s entire haul. Some 50 to 60 people are arrested each week on drugs-related offences, compared to more than 1,000 all last year, he said.
Methamphetamine, known popularly as crystal meth, is the most widespread drug, said a police spokesman, Colonel Bassem Ghanem. Opium, cannabis and pill abuse are also common.
Basra’s police department says 97 per cent of drug users arrested in 2018 were unemployed, and more than two thirds were 25 or younger.
Iraq once had the death penalty for users and dealers but passed new legislation in 2017 under which judges can order rehabilitation for users or sentence them to jail for up to three years. In the absence of rehab centres, they are jailed. Under the new law, the health ministry was given two years to provide rehab centres.
Local health officials pledged to reopen and upgrade a 44-bed rehabilitation centre this month but the police say 44 beds is not enough.
“All of Basra’s oil and we can’t afford rehab?” said Aziz.