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Contraband in Kurdistan
Smuggling Medicine ‘More Lucrative than Arms and Oil’

Ismail Othman
Locals in Iraqi Kurdistan say they have no choice but to use smuggled medicines. And business in contraband pills is booming, with drug smugglers benefiting from slow approvals and political corruption.
15.09.2016  |  Sulaymaniyah
Pharmacy in Sulaymaniyah (photo: Ismail Othman)
Pharmacy in Sulaymaniyah (photo: Ismail Othman)

Iraqi Kurdistan has a problem with pharmaceuticals smuggling. The failure of regulators to stop it has some insiders saying that government officials are complicit.

The amount of drugs that legally enter the market in the semi-autonomous, northern Iraqi region cannot meet healthcare demands in the region, a situation that has nurtured a thriving smuggling business, drug specialists told NIQASH. Not only are customs and quality control measures insufficient, but health authorities also aren’t strictly regulating pharmacies, which often sell the smuggled drugs, they said.

“There are smuggled drugs all over the world, but in the Kurdistan Region the percentage is very high,” Dr. Koran Rosebayani, the official responsible for pharmaceutical quality control in the Kurdistan Region, told NIQASH. “Most of these drugs enter the region by fraud or by deceiving security forces at checkpoints.”

Still, he denied that politicians were behind the illegal trade in pharmaceuticals, saying that authorities had arrested a number of smugglers. "As of October 2015, we were able to confiscate some 150 tons of smuggled drugs in the city of Kirkuk alone,” he added.

But selling illegal pharmaceuticals is so lucrative that neither efforts to shut down smugglers, nor the threat of one to three years in prison, are much of a deterrent.

“It can be more profitable than arms, oil and narcotics,” said Dr. Zain Abdul-Rahman Mutabji, a pharmacist and professor at the University of Sulaymaniyah. “But if the law is properly applied, smugglers will not be able to make these profits.” 

There are doubts about how well these laws and regulations are working, however.

Dr. Aras Ali Muhammad, who works at the Daik Pharmacy in Sulaymaniyah, said that the absence of a proper health system or "drug import and export apparatus” to thoroughly regulate their distribution means that pharmacies illegally import drugs to avoid delays and extra costs. 

Well-known pharmaceutical companies distribute their drugs in the Middle East through the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Lebanon. From there, the legally transported drugs enter the market in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region once they are tested and approved by authorities.

But there can be up to a two-month delay in approval before drugs are released from official quality control testing. What’s more, regulators don’t have the capacity to examine all the drugs that are needed, Muhammad said. He reported overhearing a quality control official say that authorities can only test 30 to 35 percent of the drugs on the market.

And certification can easily be forged. But this might not make much of a difference either way, because “some of the big pharmaceutical companies are owned by politicians who have high government positions, and these are usually above the law,” Muhammad added.

Dr. Yadgar Ahmad, a friend of Dr. Muhammad’s who also owns a chain of stores in Sulaymaniyah, agreed that officials are likely complicit in the illegal trade. “Those who are behind the smuggling of oil and arms are the same ones who are smuggling drugs,” he said. “No one can bring drugs into the region if he is not well-supported. Political parties do want not this problem to be solved."

NIQASH made a number of attempts to speak with drug smugglers, but they all refused, saying that revealing information about the trade would endanger their lives.

Regardless of who is responsible, both consumers and pharmacies aren’t left with much choice but to buy the smuggled drugs. While consumers complain that they cannot trust the quality of the medicines they buy, a medicine specialist who asked not to be named told NIQASH that sometimes buying smuggled drugs is the only way to get patients what they need.

He bought contraband cancer medication directly from a smuggler to help patients in desperate need, he said. Waiting for legally imported drugs can be fatal, he said.


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