In Morocco, heroin addiction sweeps cannabis corridor

A Moroccan addict smokes heroin in a squat behind a police station in the Moroccan city of Mediek near Tetouan. (AFP)
Updated 06 October 2019

In Morocco, heroin addiction sweeps cannabis corridor

  • The spread of heroin is facilitated by the “great population mobility” between southern Europe and northern Morocco

TETOUAN, MOROCCO: In a filthy squat in a beach town in northern Morocco, drug users inject and smoke heroin, a relatively recent scourge plaguing a region long known for cannabis and contraband.

Rachid says he does nothing with his life, except heroin.

“I shoot up four or five times a day,” the 34-year-old said, breathing raggedly.

He shows his arms, scarred from a decade of injecting, before taking a sniff of glue to “prolong the high.”

Half-a-dozen others are shooting up or smoking heroin alongside Rachid in the squat, located behind a police station in Mediek, a Mediterranean resort near the city of Tetouan.

A dose of the powerful opiate they heat on aluminim foil sells for between €2.8 and €6.5 ($3-7) for a tenth of a gram.

Every week, a team from the Association for the Fight Against AIDS (ALCS) comes to the squat to hand out syringes to prevent the spread of diseases like HIV and hepatitis.

The sale and consumption of heroin is illegal in Morocco, but thanks to the efforts of ALCS in Tetouan, “it is very rare that users are arrested for their own personal consumption,” said Dr. Mohamed El-Khammas.

He runs the harm reduction program launched by ALCS in 2009, which combines awareness raising, distribution of materials like clean needles and screening.

“The idea is not to moralize, but to help the user to reduce negative effects,” Al-Khammas said.

In this region, known worldwide for its hashish produced in the Rif mountains, heroin use is a relatively recent development that is growing exponentially, experts say.

“It’s a public health priority, especially as the heroin being sold is very bad quality: It is mixed with talcum powder, paracetamol and glue,” Al-Khammas said.

The typical user is a “single man, aged 30-35 with little or no education who has never worked or works on an occasional basis,” according to a 2014 report from the National Observatory on Drugs and Addiction (ONDA).

The northern urban centers of Tetouan, Tangier and Nador are Morocco’s worst affected areas.

The spread of heroin is facilitated by the “great population mobility” between southern Europe and northern Morocco, and the increased use of “well-established cannabis routes” by traffickers from Latin America to smuggle cocaine and heroin to Europe, ONDA said.

Those drug barons also barter heroin for cannabis in the Rif, according to ALCS staff.

The number of heroin users in Morocco is unknown.

According to ALCS, there are likely several thousand heroin users in Tetouan alone, a city of 380,000 people, which was once the seat of the Spanish administration under the dictator Francisco Franco.

Hassna, a 46-year-old ALCS caseworker, distributes clean drug paraphernalia from her backpack to users gathered in the Mediek squat.

“We urge them not to share syringes, we accompany them to health centers and we try to convince them to take care of themselves,” she said.

Rachid said he is “incapable of quitting.”

But he does want access to methadone: “That’s all we ask,” he said.

This opioid substitute is distributed by addiction treatment centers in Tetouan, but in “insufficient amounts,” Rachid said.

“Withdrawal is terrible, you have cramps, anxiety,” said his companion Mohamed, a waxen-faced 24-year-old with a syringe buried in his tattooed arm.

Every evening, an ALCS medical vehicle is parked in a different location, with a doctor, nurse and field workers on hand.

Once a week, the team parks near a cemetery overlooking Tetouan, a common spot for users. One of them, a 56-year-old named Said, said he “lost everything” because of heroin.

“I am at rock bottom,” he said.

“The hardest part is on the social level,” 37-year-old Abdelilah said.

“I lost 30 kilos because of this crap. When an old friend sees me in the street, he looks away.”

Camel herding in Western Sahara a passion with pedigree

Updated 3 min 28 sec ago

Camel herding in Western Sahara a passion with pedigree

  • In the Western Sahara, a local adage holds that he who has no camel, has nothing
  • "Camels can endure everything: sun, wind, sand and lack of water, and if they could talk, you’d easily hear how intelligent they are,” says herder

DAKHLA, Western Sahara: In the Oued Eddahab desert in Western Sahara, Habiboullah Dlimi raises dairy and racing camels just like his ancestors used to — but with a little help from modern technology.
His animals roam free in the desert and are milked as camels always have been, by hand, at dawn and dusk.
When camels “feed on wild plants and walk all day, the milk is much better,” said the 59-year-old herder, rhapsodizing about the benefits of the nutrient-rich drink, known as the “source of life” for nomads.
But Dlimi no longer lives with his flock.
He lives in town with his family. His camels are watched over by hired herders and Dlimi follows GPS coordinates across the desert in a 4X4 vehicle to reach them.
He is reticent when asked about the size of his herd. “That would bring bad luck,” he said.
He prefers to speak of the gentleness and friendliness of the animals he knows like his own children.
“Camels can endure everything: sun, wind, sand and lack of water, and if they could talk, you’d easily hear how intelligent they are,” he said.

"The desert knows me"
Dlimi comes from a long line of desert dwellers from the Ouled Dlimi tribe.
As tradition dictates, he lists his ancestors going back five generations when introducing himself.
“I know the desert and the desert knows me,” he said.
Like elsewhere, the nomads of Western Sahara are settling, following a shift from rural to urban living.
“Young people prefer to stay in town,” Dlimi said, and herders now mostly come from neighboring Mauritania, whose desert north is traversed by caravans of up to a thousand camels.
Even they “often demand to work in areas covered by (mobile phone) network signal,” he added.
The population of the nearby town of Dakhla has tripled to 100,000 in 20 years, with growth driven by fishing, tourism and greenhouse farming encouraged by Morocco.
In this part of Western Sahara, development projects depend entirely on Rabat.
Morocco has controlled 80 percent of the former Spanish colony since the 1970s and wants to maintain it as an autonomous territory under its sovereignty.
The Polisario Front movement fought a war for independence from 1975 to 1991 and wants a referendum in which the people of Western Sahara choose between independence and integration with Morocco.
The United Nations has been trying to negotiate a political compromise for decades.
Like many in his tribe, Dlimi has family members on the other side of the Western Sahara Wall separating the Moroccan controlled areas from the Polisario controlled areas.
He favors loyalty to Morocco while others back independence, he said.
Tribal affiliation trumps politics, though.
“Tribes are tribes, it’s a social organization,” he said. “There are very strong links between us.”
To “preserve the past for the future,” Dlimi started a cultural association to conserve traditions from a time when there were no borders and “families followed the herds and the clouds.”

The irony
While Dlimi loves the desert, he does have one complaint: “The camel dairy industry is valued everywhere in the world except here.”
Camel milk is trendy with health-conscious consumers and the lean meat is excellent, Dlimi claims.
Today though, it is small livestock farming that is the main agricultural focus, in response to what non-nomadic Moroccans tend to eat.
The 266,000 square kilometers (106,400 square miles) of Western Sahara under Moroccan control hosts some 6,000 herders, 105,000 camels, and 560,000 sheep and goats, according to figures from Rabat.
In other arid countries, including Saudi Arabia, intensive farming of camels has taken off.
But, while Moroccan authorities have undertaken several studies into developing Western Sahara’s camel industry, these have not so far been acted upon.
Regardless, a local adage holds that he who has no camel, has nothing.
“Some say that Saharans are crazy because when they have money they spend it on four feet,” Dlimi jokes.
For him, 20,000 dirhams ($2,000) spent on a camel is a safe investment.
But it is also a consuming passion.
His Facebook page and WhatsApp messages are filled with talk of camel husbandry techniques, research and racing.
Racing “is a pleasure and it pays,” Dlimi said.
Since the United Arab Emirates funded construction of a camel racing track at Tantan, 900 kilometers (560 miles) to the north, racing animals have appreciated in value and can sell for up to 120,000 dirhams, according to Dlimi.
To train his racing camels, Dlimi chases the young animals across the desert in his 4X4.
The technique has made him an eight-time champion in national competitions, he said.
But camels can be stubborn, Dlimi stressed, telling of how he once sold his best champion for a “very good price,” but the animal refused to race once it had changed hands.