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In the Middle East, the prospects of a kinder drug policy remain distant

Across the Middle East, the ‘Americanisation’ of global drug policy seems as engrained and as inflexible as ever.

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Opium Smoker, 1950s Iran. Getty Images / Three Lions. All rights reserved. Opium Smoker, 1950s Iran. Getty Images / Three Lions. All rights reserved.Rightly or wrongly, the Middle East enjoys a reputation for being a region that bucks the world trends. Nowhere is this more marked than in relation to illicit drugs. While liberal commentators look forward with some expectation to the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) this April, with the possibility that at very least the global proscription regime will soften, in the Middle East the opposite seems to be happening. In countries as diverse as Dubai, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the ‘Americanisation’ of global policy seems as engrained and as inflexible as ever. 

To some extent this disparity is a reflection of the relative maturity of the public policy process, within which the international drugs sector may be understood. For example, it is no surprise that the most intense debates about liberalising the global drugs regime originate in Latin America. The brutal and extensive loss of life stemming from the criminalisation of drugs trafficking has widely afflicted Mexican society. Meanwhile, the great and the good of south American politics have called for a new page to be turned as far as restricting youth consumption has been concerned. In 2013, Uruguay became the first country to legalise the production, sale and consumption of marijuana.

By contrast, the Middle East is a public policy laggard. This makes it a lot more naïve about confronting the issue of illegal drugs. It is less than 12 years ago that Saudi Arabia executed a Turkish truck driver after he was caught smuggling stimulant pills under the commercial name of Captagon across the border into the Kingdom, sparking an international incident. An ‘upper’ drug, Captagon is now a drug of choice among the local youth in the Persian Gulf as a whole.

Uncertainty pervades the drugs scene in Dubai. In the past, an automatic four-year prison sentence has followed the possession of the merest quantities, even for drugs such as codeine and ketamine, which are not always believed to be illegal or dangerous. At the very least this would be suggestive of mixed signals, as Dubai has held rock concerts in the desert, while a jazz festival takes place annually in February. In Iran there was the widespread use of harm reduction technique, from free syringes to methadone programmes. These continued even during the hard-line conservative presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, from 2005 to 2013, as he simultaneously attempted to preach the virtues of clean living and godliness. 

That is not to suggest that illicit drugs are a new phenomenon. Historically, they are as old as the hills. Think of the first Middle Eastern civilisations, in places like northern Mesopotamia. Think too of the wild-eyed hashisheen, who pursued their campaign of political killings while under the influence of hash. Later on, drugs were readily available at the court of the regional dynasties, such as the Qajars in Persia. Neither was this always a blue-blooded pastime. Well-to-do, older men used to while away their retirement by smoking opiates with their friends in the rural villages of Iran. More recently, both Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (1970 to 1981) and Muhammad Reza Shah, the second (and last) of the Pahlavi Shahs, who was expelled by a street revolution in early 1979, were widely rumoured to have been regular imbibers. Clearly, even the USA’s drugs-related opprobrium had its limitations.

The production of illicit drugs in the Middle East may not be new, but it does not mean that it is well understood, either at the societal or state levels. With the world’s largest volume of opiates cultivated next door in Afghanistan since the 1950s, it would be surprising if points west did not provide a highly favourable market for the supply of the drug and its ilk. Indeed, the earnings potential has been further magnified by the movement of the location of the region’s heroin laboratories. The criminal groups involved transferred such activity from Turkey at the end of the last century to locations inside the country of Afghanistan itself. The twin advantage of such a shift was to reduce transportation costs, while being able to take a significantly higher margin as a result of the process of vertical integration.  

From Afghanistan, the heroin and its opiate derivatives now move by one of three favoured routes. The first direction takes the drugs southwards, through Pakistan, and then on to the high seas, from where they can be widely distributed across the world. The second movement of drugs uses the northern route, which sees the drugs penetrate the countries of the former Soviet Union. The third, and perennially most effective direction is the western route. According to this pathway, the drugs make their way westwards out of Afghanistan and into Iran, from where a significant proportion of drugs remain behind for local use, either as heroin wraps in the poorer districts of the cities, notably south Tehran, or as opiates like morphine. Although Iranian law enforcement has tended to make a supreme effort to keep the opiates out of eastern, Iran this has proven to be an ambitious goal, especially in the presence of a well-armed and disciplined border insurgency.

Once the opiate smugglers have crossed the international border and unloaded their contraband in the population centres of the country, it is relatively easy to move the remainder of the load to Iran’s western boundary. From here, it can be repackaged and sold on to predominantly Kurdish tribes. They will guide it efficiently and safely, along over the inhospitable route, across the border and into the lawless nature of Turkey’s own Kurdish region in the secluded east and south-east of the country. 

Law enforcement on the Turkish side of the border is rendered relatively ineffectual for a clutch of different reasons. These range from: extremely inhospitable, mountainous peaks, that traverse the international boundary; predictably commensurate bad winter weather; poorly trained law enforcement, covering both the Gendarmerie (the rural police that enjoys the status of a branch of the military) and the conventional military itself; the direct bribery of state officials, and threats of intimidation against those, like the families of teachers and security personnel, who may well have been posted away from the ethno-Turkish heartlands of the state.

From there, the heroin and opiates are transported across Turkey, from the Lake Van area in the east, with its absurdly prosperous levels of income, to the sprawling Greater Istanbul metropolis in the west.  With meagre hard drugs consumption in the centre of the Anatolian land mass, the Turkish gangs are able to move such contraband around the country’s interior with relative ease. From Istanbul, the drugs join what is widely known as the ‘Balkans Route’, two complementary centres of criminality. 

Moving by boat and by road, the drugs either transit northwards, to be wholesaled prior to distribution in eastern and central Europe, or move into southern Europe, from where they are sold on more quickly. Fifteen years or so ago the British authorities were trenchant in their articulated belief that 90% of the opiates reaching the UK’s border originated in Turkey. This focus was eventually altered to emphasise Afghanistan as the origin of such trafficking, and hence to help justify the allocation of new funds to maintain the British security presence. The switching of the focus reflected the resurgence of the Taliban insurgency and Britain’s undertaking to lead on the narcotics ‘dossier’, especially in the extremely violent south, notably in Helmand Province. This in turn allowed Turkey to more easily strive in its objective of pursuing its then goal of full membership of the European Union. 

Which brings us to the Syrian migration crisis, and the atypical experiences that have afflicted Europe in 2015 and 2016.  They will almost certainly have an impact on the illicit drugs supply network, with law enforcement most likely to be distracted by human trafficking gangs. 

The role of illicit drugs has been all the more egregious because of its use in the war zones of Syria, where psychotropic drugs like Tramadol, are widely suspected of having extended the fighting once they have been issued to militia groups. These dynamics resonate with similar experiences during the Lebanese civil war, from 1975 to 1990. Militia groups also generated income for themselves as they sought to maintain their viability some three decades or so ago. They did so by expanding their production of hashish and opiates.

With April’s UNGASS looming, drugs, though still largely defined as illicit, are being increasingly pointed in the direction of the licit in the Americas. They are suggestive of a safer, kinder regime than the one that has existed until the recent past, Mexico notwithstanding. In Asia, where the Middle East has largely been lost sight of, whether as a trafficker or as a consumer space, the prognosis is altogether less benign. If the ‘Americanisation’ of drugs policy is a term that has come to be associated with a harsh and punitive approach, in the Middle East it is likely to be but the latest such trend and not the final one.

This article is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and CELS, an Argentine human rights organisation with a broad agenda that includes advocating for drug policies respectful of human rights. The partnership coincides with the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs.
About the author

Philip Robins is Reader in Middle East Politics at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. His new book, The Middle East Drugs Bazaar:  Production, Prevention and Consumption, is published by Hurst and Oxford University Press, London and New York respectively, in April 2016.


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