How Drug Use Is Viewed in the Middle East

How Drug Use Is Viewed in the Middle East

Attitudes about drug use in the Middle East are often tied to Islam

Every country and geographical region has an evolving history of drug use. Some substances have been used traditionally and are accepted to a certain degree in a given society. The use of others carries a heavier stigma.

Substances with a Traditional History of Use in the Middle East

In the Middle East several substances have a traditional history of use. Perhaps the most ubiquitous is flavored tobacco used in a waterpipe known as a hookah or shisha. Shisha cafes continue to be popular throughout the Middle East although some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, are beginning to regulate smoking in public places

Khat, alternatively spelled kat or qat, is another substance with a history dating back thousands of years. It is a flowering plant containing an amphetamine-like stimulant compound. Generally the fresh leaves are chewed, but they may also be dried and made into a tea. In many western countries khat is regulated as a controlled substance, but the use and sale of the plant in some African and Middle Eastern countries is legal. A 2010 Sky News report noted that in Yemen, an estimated 80% of men chew khat, and most women also use the substance. The report notes that khat crops use 40% of Yemen’s water. The government is beginning to consider ways to curtail usage.

Another substance with a long history of use in the Middle East is opium, which can be consumed in its natural form or used to produce morphine, heroin and other drugs. Afghanistan, in particular, is a prime producer of opium poppies. A 2014 article in The Guardian notes that about three-quarters of the world’s illicit opium products come from Afghanistan. Rates of drug use are rising within the country climbing from 1 million in 2009 to 1.3 million in 2012.

Attitudes about drug use are often tied to religious faith. Islam is the predominant religion in the Middle East and forbids intoxication with alcohol or drugs. For this reason alcohol is illegal in some countries in the area including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. A 2014 article in the Journal of Religion and Health reported on a study of Muslim adolescents and found that those reporting the highest attachment to God and family were the least likely to use alcohol and other substances.

Middle Eastern Amphetamine Use

Despite Islam’s prohibition drug use in the Middle East, as in the rest of the world, continues to rise and new drugs have risen to prominence. A 2010 CNN World report notes that the Middle East leads the world in amphetamine seizures and that Saudi Arabia seems especially hard hit. The most popular amphetamine in the region is a drug known as Captagon. Captagon was a prescription product developed to treat Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder which was later discontinued. Drug manufacturers now produce counterfeit Captagon containing amphetamine and caffeine. A 2014 article in The Guardian notes that Captagon is cheap to produce and is often made in Syria.

Reactions to the Growing Problem

A 2014 article in Al Monitor reports on the rise of drug use among youth in Iraq. In 2012 a parliamentary committee reported that “the security, the judicial and the health services are embarrassed about the spread of drugs.” Family members of drug abusers also sometimes face embarrassment. The article reports on a teacher who admitted he once beat his heroin-addicted brother because of concern for his family’s reputation.

The stigma against drug use may be especially strong for women. The International Drug Policy Consortium notes that national reports of drug use in the region rarely even include data for women, a phenomenon the authors hypothesize is mainly due to stigma. The stigma is strongest for those who are drug injectors. A 2009 abstract published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that in Saudi Arabia, substance abuse among women has been denied even on an official level. The authors noted that the prevalence of drug abuse to drugs like Xanax among women in the country appears to be low but has serious social consequences.

As the problems become more apparent, governments and other agencies are responding. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that an Emergency Response Fund in Yemen is addressing the problem of drug addiction. A 2014 article reported in Science Daily states that there are rising rates of HIV infection in the Middle East among people who inject drugs. The authors note that several countries have made significant progress in addressing the issue through harm-reduction programs.

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