Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government is striving to contain what has grown into a significant drug problem among its population, pushing the limits of both law enforcement and medical care facilities in accommodating criminals and those who need help fighting their addictions.
Kurdish news outlet Rudaw reports that there has been a “sharp increase” in both drug arrests and people seeking treatment for drug addiction in medical facilities, and the KRG Health Ministry is warning the government may not be able to help all those seeking treatment or have the resources to crack down on drug trafficking.
Health ministry spokesman Dr. Khalis Qadir told Rudaw the government has turned to using psychiatric centers as rehabilitation clinics in order to care for as many people as possible, as a planned hospital that would house drug addicts has not yet been completed due to the ongoing war with the Islamic State: “The construction of the special hospital is temporarily suspended because of the financial crisis in the country which is why we, at the moment, use psychiatric centers and the like for the purpose.”
Most of those arrested for drug-related crime in Iraqi Kurdistan are men; the region has 510 prisoners serving sentences related to drug trafficking or illicit drug use. Those who work on the borders of the Kurdish region complain that they do not have sufficient resources to keep smugglers out. “We need more sophisticated devices to detect illicit drugs when visitors enter or leave the country,” border guard Masoud Mohammad told Rudaw, noting that they had trained dogs and some rudimentary technology but little else to limit the use of Kurdish territories for drug trafficking.
Drug abuse has developed into an alarming problem throughout Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein. In 2010, the New York Times reported that the Iraqi military was being ravaged by drug abuse problems, both alcohol and opiates. “Drug and alcohol use among the police and the military has become increasingly common and appears to have grown significantly during the past year or so,” the newspaper noted.
The problem became significant enough for the Iraqi government to issue a statement warning citizens against buying and using opiates, narcotics, and “ecstasy” in particular, which had become more popular by 2012.
Two years later, a new destabilizing factor took hold of Iraq: the Islamic State. It is estimated that ISIS makes around $1 billion a year on trafficking opiates out of Afghanistan through Iraq, and the more territory they conquer, the easier it is for them to smuggle these drugs from town to town. The Islamic State’s rise has also made it far more difficult for those trying to combat drug addiction within Iraq to operate. As Vice notes, the burgeoning drug problem had become big enough for the United Nations to act before the Islamic State’s rise, with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) developing a program in Iraq. That program has since been postponed due to the dangers of working under the threat of ISIS attack, leaving those ravaged by drug problems to fend for themselves.
The Vice article notes that with the rise of the Islamic State has also come the rise of new opiates, mentioning Tramadol in particular, as well as amphetamines, all taking over for more commonly found drugs like hashish. Ignorance of the dangers of these drugs have allowed their use to spread, creating a new source of revenue for ISIS.
Since the work of constructing a radical Islamist caliphate requires billions and billions of dollars, the Islamic State has continued to work creating new sources of income, whether they be ancient artifacts, drugs, or oil. To that end, ISIS leadership has ramped up operations in Afghanistan– or the Khorasan region of the “caliphate”– in order to more strongly control the growth and development of opiates there. Afghan officials have confirmed the presence of ISIS jihadists in Afghanistan, with some attempting to infiltrate the Taliban, with others joining the group from neighboring central Asian countries like Tajikistan, or the western Uyghur regions of China.
It is estimated that 520,000 acres of land in Afghanistan is being used for poppy farming, the first step in the process of developing opiates.