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How Drug Use Is Viewed in the Middle East

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How Drug Use Is Viewed in the Middle East

Many countries in the Middle East have an extreme religious conservatism that plays a role in legislation. For example, alcohol consumption is banned in Saudi Arabia where the punishment for drinking is public lashing or worse. Despite the substantial risks, the prevalence of drug abuse in the Middle East is surprisingly high, and Iran arguably has the highest addiction rate in the world per the Islamic Republic’s own numbers. The particular drugs used in the Middle East often have different names, but the categories (e.g., stimulants, opiates, etc.) are generally the same. Countries that traditionally make up the Middle East include Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Palestine, Qatar, Syria, Cyrus, Oman, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Yemen though more inclusive definitions include Libya, Afghanistan, Tunisia, Sudan, and others. Culture, religion and government influence the different views on drug use, but substance abuse is clearly a problem.

Types of Drug Abuse in the Middle East

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) provides data on international substance use for 2011 in the 2013 World Drug Report which reported the following:

Types of Drug Abuse in the Middle East
  • Sixty-four percent of all amphetamine seizures take place in the Near and Middle East.
  • The number of amphetamine seizures in 2011 reflected an all-time high.
  • Afghanistan is the world’s leading producer of opium and (with Morocco) marijuana.
  • The prevalence of heroin, opium, and prescription opioid use is 1.9% for the Middle East.
  • The Middle Eastern rate for heroin and opium specifically is 1.2%.
  • The North American rate is 3.9% for all opiates and 0.5% for heroin and opium.
  • Tramadol, a painkiller not under international control, is one of the most abused opioids.
  • Nonmedical use of tranquilizers and sedatives is less common in the Middle East.
  • Turkey is the exception with a 5.1% prevalence rate (vs. 2.6% for North America).

In reporting that the Middle East has the world’s most amphetamine seizures, CNN in 2010 said the main culprit is a counterfeit version of Captagon, a brand name formulation of fenetylline. Captagon was developed in the 1960s to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and discontinued in the 1980s, but counterfeiters stamp its logo on their pills to capitalize on its name recognition. Khat, made from a flowering plant containing cathinone and cathine, is another stimulant widely used in the Arabian Peninsula and on the Horn of Africa. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) in 2013 said as many as 10 million people use khat, including migrant communities in the US, and 82% of Yemen men reported using it at least once.

Regarding other drugs, the aforementioned CNN report added that marijuana is common in the Middle East, and nightlife-friendly countries like Lebanon have higher usage rates of designer drugs like ecstasy. Al Jazeera, meanwhile, reported in 2013 that tramadol abuse has become a major problem in Egypt making up 60% of rehabilitation center admissions. That same year The Economist noted that Iran says two million of its 75 million citizens suffer addiction—the highest national rate in the world—while some experts suggest the rate may be double that number. Among the more commonly used drugs in Iran, she (or glass) is homemade crystal meth while crack is a cheap heroin derivative unique to the country. Despite the government’s strong stance against drug use, the article adds that substance abuse often takes place openly in places like Davarze Ghar, one of Tehran’s most blighted districts.

Middle Eastern Views on Drug Abuse

Certain countries in Asia and the Middle East have particularly tough punishments for drug offenders, but regional views may differ for various reasons. For example, the view may be more favorable if the drug is produced locally and helps the economy while some might argue that natural substances like khat should not be classified as a drug. People may view drug use differently based on social status and gender, which includes greater addiction stigma for women per The Washington Post in 2014. Nevertheless, a 2010 article on addiction in the Middle East noted several common themes about drug use including the following:

  • The public and policymakers generally view addiction as a bad habit, not a disease.
  • Many people view the rise in substance abuse as a result of war, violence and sanctions.
  • Areas of conflict are, by necessity, more concerned with security and safety than drug use.
  • Limited resources and social stigma are leading factors that keep addicts from treatment.

Religious and state considerations may cast drug use in a negative light, but the way Middle Eastern countries approach the issue often seems contradictory. For example, Iran regularly uses capital punishment for drug offenses, but the country is arguably the most progressive in terms of addiction support, which includes needle exchanges, methadone clinics, treatment charities and a rapidly growing number of Narcotics Anonymous (NA) groups. Likewise, a University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) study in 2005 noted that many countries like Libya, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia all have treatment facilities.

Substance Abuse Treatment

Drug punishments may vary in severity around the world, but most nations agree that addiction treatment is a valuable tool for addressing substance abuse. For addicts with cultural concerns, there are numerous facilities offering quality care overseas while several North American facilities offer programs that cater to particular languages, faiths and cultures. In most cases there is a treatment center that can meet whatever particular needs an addict might have.

Call our toll-free helpline 24 hours a day for more information on addiction treatment and facilities. Our admissions coordinators can answer any questions, provide materials and even check health insurance policies for treatment benefits. We are ready to help, so please call now.

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