For some time now, locals have heard rumours that drug abuse is on the rise in Iraqi Kurdistan. Recently the intelligence services and security – known as the Asayesh – in Sulaymaniyah were able to confirm this.
In a January press conference, the head of the drug enforcement agency from the local Asayesh offices, announced that the number of drug-related offences in the semi-autonomous northern region have almost doubled since 2015.
In 2016, 310 people were arrested, Jalal Amin Beg, director of the agency, told local media. In 2015 it was only 150. And the last few months have only shown that this number is continuing to increase.
“Up until today, the courts have issued judgments against 61 people arrested in 2016,” Beg said. “Terms of imprisonment have ranged from between one and 15 years. Thirty-three were released as the charges could not be proven.”
The other noticeable change, Beg added, was the increasing numbers of women involved in the drug trade.
The Sulaymaniyah agency was only able to give numbers for its own area. Authorities in other areas have their own statistics and word has it that the Kurdish provinces of Erbil, Dohuk and Halabja are also seeing an increase.
Hashish is the most widely trafficked substance in Iraqi Kurdistan, as it is cheap and easy to find and use, Beg said. For example, Beg noted, his forces found a field planted with marijuana – from which hashish is made – within the borders of Erbil province. “The two Turkish people planting it were arrested,” Beg reported.
In another case, the police in Arbat, east of Sulaymaniyah, oversaw the seizure of 1 million Tramadol tablets – these are an opioid analgesic, a painkiller that can become addictive in the same way Vicodin and methadone can.
One of the main reasons for the increase is thought to be the long and porous border between Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran, says Yadgar Haji, a researcher working at a prison where many of the locals from Sulaymaniyah held on drug-related offences are.
Iran has a growing and very serious problem with drug abuse. According to a recent story in the Los Angeles Times, “the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime says Iran has one of the gravest addiction crises in the world. Health ministry officials estimate there are 2.2 million drug addicts in this country of 80 million, 2.75 percent of the population, but doctors who operate some of the hundreds of government-sanctioned rehab clinics nationwide believe the actual figures are higher”.
And it is relatively easy to get drugs across the Iran-Iraq border. Although Iraqi Kurdistan still doesn’t have the kinds of issues that Iran does, it does appear to be a growing phenomenon.
“We cannot comment on the figures given by the Asayesh in Sulaymaniyah,” Khaled Qadir, the spokesperson for Iraqi Kurdistan’s health ministry, told NIQASH. “But we can say that all of Iraqi Kurdistan’s authorities are trying to develop a road map with a view to preventing this problem from worsening.”
At the moment, authorities believe the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan is still under control, with serious addiction and intravenous drug use not a major cause for concern, as yet. But if numbers continue to rise on the same trajectory as the past year, then the situation could become more worrying, they say.
Given the fact that what most locals believe are the main reasons for the growing amount of drug abuse – frustration, unemployment, hopelessness about local politics, economics and society – are not going away anytime soon, there is fear that the situation could worsen.
Authorities don’t have particularly good plans to deal with those found guilty of drug-related offences either. “Unfortunately these people are put in prisons rather than getting treatment for their addictions,” Haji said. “They should be being rehabilitated so they can become role models for others. Treating them this way will only lead to an increase in the number of drug abusers.”