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Drugs on the Rampage

Saleem al-Wazzan
The spread of medical and narcotic drugs, as well as unlicensed pharmacies is on the up in Iraq, pointing to a worrying trend of increased drug dependency emerging on the back of years of violence, fear and uncertainty.
11.09.2008  |  Basra

Today, it is not uncommon to see a person filling his pockets with various types of medicines, some with narcotic substances that might lead to death if applied in an unprofessional manner. Nor is it uncommon to see pharmacists dispensing with the need for prescriptions and selling drugs to whoever will buy them.

Unlicensed pharmacies are spreading everywhere and women drug sellers, known as ‘dallalat’ (female brokers), hunt down clients while displaying their assortment of drugs for diseases ranging from colds to sexual boosters on street corners. Most of these women dropped out of school early and started drug trafficking by hiding the drugs under their clothes. Some sell contraceptives and offer products promising increased lip or breast size. Doctors confirmed to Niqash, however, that these medications will do nothing. Their claims are mere lies.

Some drugs, particularly narcotics that one can find on street corners are otherwise difficult to find, even in Basra’s hospitals. According to Dr. Raheem Sharhan al-Farigi, a family medicine doctor, “these drugs are smuggled from hospitals and health centers while many patients suffer from the unavailability of these medications and accuse the health care body of drug trafficking.”

In commercial centers, unlicensed pharmacies display their pharmaceuticals and drugs along with herbal and cosmetic goods. Patients are treated like customers for any other goods, and no prescription is required. Your Niqash correspondent bought Prozac, an anti-depressant that should be only sold with a medical prescription, with ease from one of the pharmacies in Basra’s al-‘Ashar commercial area.

Mazen, the owner of the pharmacy, said that his shop is legally licensed. Having never studied pharmacy himself he said that he had rented the license of a Basra pharmacist currently working in Kuwait. Visitors to Mazen’s pharmacy are able to buy medications that are usually distributed free of charge to hospital patients – when they are not out of supply, which is so often the case in the country’s hospitals to the constant dismay of doctors and nurses. “They are not for sale inside hospitals but we buy hospitals’ excess quantities and sell them for cheap prices,” explained Mazen.

Reports from the Basra health department as well as information provided by environmental NGOs indicate that medical diseases are spreading through Basra with increasing speed. As the head of the Basra water services Abdulmunem Khayun explains "the health situation in Basra is deteriorating due to the large number of contaminated rivers and swamps, as well as the deteriorating health service, that affects the city increased"

The lack of an efficient health system has encouraged a number of health workers such as nurses to open shops selling medications and injections. In many cases the patients are wrongly diagnosed and given the wrong medications. But their customers are the poor who are used to these drugs - mostly pain killers - and who are less likely to question the consequences.

Forty-one year old Ammar Muhsen who lives with his family in a 12-metre squared room located behind the old security building suffers from fatigue and arthritis. Now, he has become addicted to pain killers provided from an illicit pharmacy. According to a doctor now treating him, “Ammar takes 15 tablets a day, a quantity that would normally kill a healthy person.”

“I escaped from the army during Saddam’s rule and was imprisoned for five years. I suffered harsh conditions during this period which impacted on my health. I have to take these drugs to kill the pain,” explained Ammar.

Al-Farigi says that many of his patients suffer from similar conditions. They have become addicted to medications bought from illegitimate shops such as Somadril, Control, Betadin. Some consume a product called Cycotin, an adhesive substance sold in bookshops, but which when inhaled provides a narcotic sensation.

A Department of Health official in Basra refused to provide Niqash with the number of addicts in the city and would not allow us to interview patients in Basra’s Public Hospital, where these patients are received. He did not deny that narcotics are being sold by pharmacies, but added that “a circular has been issued to all pharmacies not to sell drugs to people below the age of 18. A joint health and security campaign is also being conducted in cooperation with Basra’s customs to combat drugs and addiction.”

Commenting on widespread reports of narcotics abuse in Basra’s pharmacies, Nassif al-Abbadi, Basra’s deputy governor, denied the existence of such a problem and said that “the number of cases is limited and the phenomenon is not widely spread compared to abuse of alcohol which became a common phenomenon after the Knights Assault campaign.”

For the moment, it seems that officials in the province are first and foremost interested in combating the spread of alcohol use. However, drug misuse risks rising to the fore if not identified quickly as access and use becomes increasingly easy in the Southern city.