Issues of Drug Abuse in the Middle East

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drug abuse in the middle east

Drug use isn’t looked highly upon among non-users in most Middle Eastern nations. It isn’t uncommon for people to look at drug addicts as people who are less than, composed of fewer morals, and with weaker willpower. Unfortunately, opinions like these have helped create a formidable stigma against those suffering from drug addiction for many years now. For most, willpower has little to do with combatting this illness. Regardless of the negative effects that drug abuse may bring forth into a user’s life, addicts can’t stop cravings that lead them to chase down and use their substance of choice.[1]

Alcohol is frowned upon just as badly as drug use and even banned entirely in some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates.[2]

Addiction is a chronic disease that imposes a lifelong battle for the user and can be fatal for many if not treated. Globally, around 200 million people use illicit drugs each day.[3] Nations in the Middle East fight their own battles; in Iran alone, 1.2 million citizens are addicted to at least one substance and another 800,000 non-addicts use illicit drugs recreationally.[4] When referencing the Middle East, the sixteen states generally included are:[5]

map of the middle east
  • Bahrain
  • Cyprus
  • Egypt
  • Iran
  • Iraq
  • Israel
  • Jordan
  • Kuwait
  • Lebanon
  • Oman
  • Qatar
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Syria
  • Turkey
  • United Arab Emirates
  • Yemen

A Snapshot of the Middle East

There are more than 350 million people living in the Middle East.[6] Of specific concern in the region is the growing rate of addiction among Middle Eastern youths. A 2007 investigation churned out results showing a minimum 20 percent increase of drug abuse among Iraq’s children and youth just within the year.[7] The most popularly abused drugs in the Middle East are opium, stimulants and marijuana. Afghanistan has long been a major worldwide supplier of opium, a product derived from opium poppy pods and converted into heroin; about 80 percent of opium on Earth comes from Afghanistan.[8] In more recent years, countries such as Pakistan, Mexico, and Thailand also grow opium.[9] In the Middle Eastern nation of Turkey, the practice is totally legal.
Opium Source
Furthermore, Afghanistan is also responsible for the majority of the world’s marijuana supply, with 10,000 to 24,000 hectares being produced annually and transported elsewhere for domestic use, often in the form of hashish.[10] Amphetamine-type stimulants are largely produced — often in pill form and marketed as Captagon — in Syria, making distribution and consumption somewhat easier to get away with.[11] Saudi Arabia leads the Middle East as the largest consumer of illicit stimulants; the nation accounts for 30 percent of worldwide amphetamine seizures.[12]

Legal Woes

Border patrol surrounding many Middle Eastern nations is insufficient, leading to subpar regulation of the trafficking of illegal substances. Iran is responsible for the production of large amounts of both hashish and methamphetamines that are transported to Iraq for use and distribution among other countries in the Middle East.[13] Likewise, Syria produces a significant amount of fenethylline — amphetamine-type stimulant pills — that follow the same method of transport.[14] Of all amphetamine seizures worldwide, 64 percent occur in the Middle East.[15]
Afghanistan sends heroin and opium along the same path, often ending up in Syria and Turkey where they can be dealt to other regions, even into other European countries like Italy.[16] Border patrol seems to be lacking in Iraq too, with drug transporters being acutely aware of the increase in searches and seizures and doubling up on their efforts to conceal the drugs they’re carrying. Israeli citizens are responsible for little in the way of drug manufacturing and trafficking, but plenty are abusing substances brought in from neighboring nations.

Conversely, 39,796 Italian citizens were arrested in 2011 for drug-related crimes.[17] Jordan has come out above any other nation in the Middle East in keeping drug-related criminal activity and addictions low, something that is likely due to their positive affiliations with neighboring Middle Eastern countries. Only 4,713 Jordanians were arrested for possession of drugs and another 732 for dealing in 2012.[18] In Lebanon, drug abuse is still a problem, but on a somewhat smaller scale with only 284 heroin arrests, 394 cocaine arrests, 773 hashish arrests, and 133 synthetic drug arrests between January and October of 2012.[19]

In Iran, amendments to drug laws in 2010 now mean that drug addiction is no longer punishable by law if you’re an addict.[20] Thus, those who abuse illicit substances but aren’t addicted are still at risk for legal ramifications, and they aren’t typical of what you might find in other areas of the world.[21] For example, users of certain substances, like hashish, might find themselves bearing the brunt of 20 to 74 lashes and paying a fine equivalent to $40 to $200; for the use of stronger substances like opium, the punishment increases.[22]

Those who dare to sell, manufacture or traffic drugs could potentially face fatal consequences.[23]

As many as 500 people are penalized with a death sentence in Iran every year.[24] In Saudi Arabia, transporting drugs comes at the risk of public decapitation.[25] In the United Arab Emirates, drugs are taken so seriously than one individual was sentenced to four years behind bars when a scant and invisible-to-the-naked-eye amount of marijuana was found stuck to his shoe.[26]

drug punishment in middle east

Between March of 2011 and March of 2012, 430 tons of illicit substances were seized by law enforcement in Iran, with around 70 percent of such taking place in areas bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan.[27] Additionally, seizures for heroin and opium have wavered little and not increased, but those for methamphetamine increased significantly, with 2011 seizures for these drugs occurring over 11 times more than they did just three years earlier.[28]

Middle Eastern Maladies

iv drug users
Of course, one of the most detrimental consequences of the use of specific substances is the risk of contracting infectious diseases when engaging in intravenous drug practices. In Iran alone, an estimated 70 percent of those infected with HIV between 1986 and 2013 contracted it via IV drug use. In Bahrain specifically, 90 percent of IV drug users have HIV.[29] In Iraq, drug laws are still somewhat outdated in the eyes of many and users can face three to 15 years of incarceration while transporters of substances can face life behind bars and even death.[30] A lifetime sentence isn’t uncommon in Cyprus either.[31] Of the top 20 nations accounting for the most drug-related deaths in the world, more than half are located in the Middle East.[32]

Mental illness still isn’t something that is approached in the Middle East with as much compassion as it is in the West. Ignorance of mental health issues, even those as basic as depression and anxiety, are not as closely followed or recorded in Middle Eastern nations as they are in more developed countries, because there is still a large stigma attached to mental illness in the region. Cultural beliefs that mental illness presents a weakness in the patient, religious beliefs that mental health symptoms may be nothing more than a rendered punishment by an omniscient figure, and the general lack of awareness even within the medical community likely account for many in Arab nations going undiagnosed.[33]


It is thought by many that not enough is being done to address the issue of rampant drug abuse and addiction in the Middle East. Treatment options aren’t nearly as widespread and available in this region as compared to other parts of the world. Facilities in Afghanistan are plentiful if addicts are looking to detox, and 200 to 300 addicts can be found in these facilities every day.[34] In addition, there is no follow-up or support for addicts following the detoxification process, and the government-run facilities boast an extremely high relapse rate at 92 percent.[35] Treatment isn’t easy to come by in the Middle East; often, addicts must wait for months before they’re admitted to a facility.[36]

Middle Eastern Family
Young Arabic woman in wearing islamic scarfWomen in the Middle East are increasingly becoming more likely to seek treatment as it turns out. Despite the traditional cultural beliefs that many in the Middle East carry toward drug addicts — some even believing addicts should be punished by death — mindsets are changing as substance abuse treatment options slowly expand. For many women, they’ve fallen prey to the drug trafficking of Afghan opium that is so prevalent in areas like Tehran.

Approximately three million of the 76 million people living in Iran are drug addicts, and it is believed over 700,000 of those addicts are females, a number that is more than twice what it was in 2012.[37] In the Kunduz province of Afghanistan, over 30,000 of its 800,000 residents were addicted to drugs in 2012.[38] What is more alarming is that females and children account for an astounding 40 percent of those addicts.[39]


[1] “Drug Facts: Understand Drug Abuse and Addiction.” (2012 November). National Institute on Drug Abuse. Accessed September 6, 2014.

[2] “10 Countries Where Alcohol is Illegal.” (n.d.). The Daily Meal. Accessed September 6, 2014.

[3] Stein, J. (2012 January 5). “200 million people use illegal drugs; what is the toll on health?Los Angeles Times. Accessed September 6, 2014.

[4] Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. (2013 March 5). “2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report.U.S. Department of State. Accessed September 6, 2013.

[5] Evan-Moor Corp. (2004). “The Middle East Region.Allen Independent School District. Accessed September 6, 2014.

[6] “Middle East: Peoples.” (n.d.). Exploring the Environment. Accessed September 6, 2014.

[7] “IRAQ: Drug abuse among children on the rise.” (2007 May 9). IRIN News. Accessed September 6, 2014.

[8] “The International Heroin Market.” (n.d.). The White House. Accessed September 6, 2014.

[9] Kenneth. (n.d.). “Where Is Opium Grown?Opium Project. Accessed September 6, 2014.

[10] Reuters. (2010 March 31). “Afghanistan now world’s top marijuana supplier.New York Daily News. Accessed September 6, 2014.

[11] “Captagon: the amphetamine fuelling Syria’s civil war.” (n.d.). The Guardian. Accessed September 6, 2014.

[12] Sloan, A. (2014 March 28). “Is Saudi Arabia losing the battle to combat substance abuse?Middle East Monitor. Accessed September 6, 2014.

[13] Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. (2013 March 5). “2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report.U.S. Department of State. Accessed September 6, 2013.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “World Drug Report 2013.” (n.d.). United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Accessed September 6, 2014.

[16] Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. (2013 March 5). “2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report.U.S. Department of State. Accessed September 6, 2013.

[17] Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. (2013 March 5). “2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report.U.S. Department of State. Accessed September 6, 2013.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] “Iran not doing enough to address drug addiction.” (n.d.). AL Monitor: Iran Pulse. Accessed September 6, 2014.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Smith, P. (2012 March 6). “Iran Executed Nearly 500 Drug Offenders Last Year.Stop the Drug War. Accessed September 6, 2014.

[25] “Pakistani Beheaded in Saudi for Drug Trafficking.” (2014 September 4). Zee News. Accessed September 6, 2014.

[26] “Tourists warned of UAE drug laws.” (2008 February 8). BBC News. Accessed September 6, 2014.

[27] Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. (2013 March 5). “2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report.U.S. Department of State. Accessed September 6, 2013.

[28] Ibid.

[29] “Drug Abuse in the Gulf.” (2014 June 26). Global Health Middle East. Accessed September 6, 2014.

[30] Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. (2013 March 5). “2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report.U.S. Department of State. Accessed September 6, 2013.

[31] Nickson, C. (2013 March 22). “Countries With Severe Anti Drug Laws.Safetravel. Accessed September 6, 2014.

[32] “World Health Rankings.” (n.d.). World Life Expectancy. Accessed September 6, 2014.

[33] “Access to mental health care in the Middle East- what are the barriers?” (2014 April 22). Global Health Middle East. Accessed September 6, 2014.

[34] Rubin, A. (2011 August 27). “Few Treatment Options for Afghans as Drug Use Rises.The New York Times. Accessed September 6, 2014.

[35] Ibid.

[36] “AGHANISTAN: Kabul drug addicts running out of hope.” (2009 August 30). IRIN News. Accessed September 6, 2014.

[37] Rezaian, J. (2014 May 12). “Women addicted to drugs in Iran begin seeking treatment despite taboo.The Washington Post. Accessed September 6, 2014.

[38] Matta, B. (2012 June 4). “Afghan women, children held in addiction’s grip.USA Today. Accessed September 6, 2014.

[39] Ibid.


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