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Basra: The epicentre of Iraq's drug problem

Basra is at the forefront of a nationwide spike in drugs sales and consumption [Getty]

Date of publication: 2 January, 2018

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The city of Basra in southern Iraq is at the forefront of a nationwide spike in drugs sales and consumption, with arrests nearly doubling since late 2014.

The city of Basra in southern Iraq is at the forefront of a nationwide spike in drugs sales and consumption, with arrests nearly doubling since late 2014.

During Saddam Hussein's rule, sales and possession of narcotics could be punished by a death sentence, which curbed smuggling.

However, with the removal of the death sentence after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam, Basra saw an increase in the smuggling and sales of narcotics, including new ones like hashish and methamphetamine.

The drug trade has also thrived due to a security vacuum left when many forces were moved from the borders to join the fight against the Islamic State group.

Since late 2014, arrests for drug dealing and use have nearly doubled in Basra compared to the three previous years, a senior police officer with the province's anti-narcotics department told the Associated Press

From October 2015 to December 2017, police arrested 4,035 dealers and users, he said. In 2017 alone the number of arrested late in the year stood at 3,479.

Government officials and activists blame Iraq's porous borders, a widespread ban on alcohol, and corruption and unemployment as reasons for the increase.

Government officials and activists blame Iraq's porous borders, a widespread ban on alcohol, and corruption and unemployment as reasons for the increase.

Though the problem nationwide is low compared to neighbouring countries, it is expanding, said Dr Emad Abdul-Razzaq, the federal Health Ministry's adviser on psychological wellness. "The reports we have indicate that there is an increase," he said.

Drug use is most prevalent in Basra, followed by Baghdad and Maysan provinces, authorities say.

Basra borders Iran and Kuwait — two countries where drug use is widespread — and is home to Iraq's only outlet to the Persian Gulf, from which commercial goods enter the country, making it more vulnerable to trafficking.

Large amounts of drugs have been seized in goods containers at Basra ports and border crossings.

The drug of choice for most users is crystal methamphetamine, Abdul-Razzaq said, the white crystalline drug produced in neighbouring countries and ingested by inhaling, smoking or injecting.

Others turn to drugs prescribed for relieving pain and treating psychological disorders, such as Parkizol, Valium and Somadril as well as morphine-based derivatives like codeine.

'Plagued'

Psychiatrist Aqeel al-Sabbagh said he believes the official statistics on drug abuse don't reflect the reality in the province.

"When we try to talk to the addicts about others they know, we get the feeling there are whole areas that are completely plagued," he said.

Al-Sabbagh's colleague, Nazhat Najim, said crystal meth is the most popular substance in Basra, with 62.1 percent of the country's consumption located in the province.

It's followed by Tramadol and hashish. The most affected are between the ages of 18 and 30, with 10 to 12 percent of them women, he said.

Iraq lacks specialised rehabilitation centres and medicine and suffers from a severe shortage of psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers.

One meth addict described how he was joking around while high and choked his cousin until he turned blue and lost consciousness. Some women nearby started shouting at him and pushed him off his cousin before he strangled him.

"That was the moment when my family decided to take me to a doctor to heal from drug addiction," said the 39-year-old, a father of one who works as a gas station attendant, who asked not to be identified.

He said he started smoking hashish in cigarettes and then progressed to meth. The Associated Press interviewed him in August when he was receiving treatment.

"At the beginning I had no clue about anything, but step by step and cigarette after a cigarette I found myself joining the crystal club two months later, which completely destroyed me and my family," he said.

Al-Sabbagh, who supervises the man's treatment, said that after nearly six months of treatment, he began using again and recently attacked his neighbour and damaged his car. He is now chained in his home and taking medication.

Lack of facilities

Al-Sabbagh, who heads the psychiatry department at Basra General Hospital, said the country lacks specialised rehabilitation centres and medicine and suffers from a severe shortage of psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers.

He advises his patients to seek treatment abroad — mostly Iran, Jordan and Egypt.

Early this year, Iraq is set to open its first specialised mental health and rehabilitation centre in Basra with about 40 beds after al-Sabbagh pleaded for years for such a facility. He's still awaiting authorities' approval to hire doctors and psychiatrists from Egypt to treat patients and train Iraqis.

Facing a growing problem, Basra's Anti-Narcotics Department was transformed from a small office with 15 troops and an officer in 2014 to a department boasting 195 troops and 17 officers. Another 85 security members will join soon.

Last year, it added two new detention halls to the existing one to cope with increasing numbers of addicts and dealers.

"We still need financial support, sniffer dogs, modern drug detectors and vehicles … and the perfect number for security forces is 750," said the senior officer who spoke anonymously.

Hoping to raise awareness among youths, 50-year-old activist Sameer al-Maliki is directing a film on addiction. Titled "The Price," it tells the story of two unemployed friends who are hired by a drug dealer in return for free narcotics. One of them kills the other's father when he decides to inform the police.

"If the situation continues to worsen … I'm sure we'll see drug addiction becoming a normal habit in Basra even in public areas," he warned.

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