Soaring drug addiction blights lives in Iraq’s war-shattered Ramadi

Special Captagon pills are displayed along with a cup of cocaine at an office of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF), Anti-Narcotics Division in Beirut. (AFP/File Photo)
Captagon pills are displayed along with a cup of cocaine at an office of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF), Anti-Narcotics Division in Beirut. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 18 August 2021

Soaring drug addiction blights lives in Iraq’s war-shattered Ramadi

Soaring drug addiction blights lives in Iraq’s war-shattered Ramadi
  • Once a transit-route for smuggled illicit substances, Iraq is now seeing a major rise in domestic narcotics use
  • Ramadi residents urge authorities to prioritize rehabilitation over jail time to bring Captagon scourge under control

RAMADI, IRAQ / BOGOTA, COLOMBIA: Ramadi was liberated by Iraqi security forces in the closing days of 2015 after several months under Daesh control. Since then, the people of this war-shattered provincial capital 110km west of Baghdad have struggled to rebuild their lives in the face of severe economic hardship.

After decades of war, occupation and neglect by central government, the people of Ramadi are barely scraping by, with high rates of unemployment, sluggish post-war reconstruction and the twin threat posed by Daesh remnants and pro-Iran militias.

In the vast desert province of Anbar, bordering Syria to the west, conditions are ripe for exploitation by terror cells and criminal gangs trafficking in people, weapons and drugs.

Having long been used as a transit route to shift merchandise overland, the province now offers a ready market for many illicit items, particularly Captagon.

Iraqi government forces gather in the area of Khalidiya, east of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, during the fight against Daesh. (AFP/File Photo)

Captagon, an amphetamine also known by its street name “0.1,” is one of the most commonly used drugs on Middle East battlefields. Combatants addicted to the narcotic say it helps them stay awake for days and numbs their senses, giving them stamina for long battles and allowing them to kill with abandon.

Ahmed Ali refuses to give his real name because he is ashamed of his drug habit. The 23-year-old started using Captagon recreationally after the defeat of Daesh, but quickly came to depend on the little yellow pills to stay alert during his punishing work hours.

“I started taking Captagon in 2017 when a friend gave it to me. I was curious. I just wanted to try it,” Ali told Arab News from his home in Ramadi. “It is the most popular drug here. Most of the young people take it.”

Owing to its energizing and mood-lifting effects, Captagon has become a popular recreational drug in the wider region. “People think it makes them feel better. But for me, I use it to stay alert because my job requires me to stay awake for a long time,” Ali said.

Ahmed Ali, not his real name, started using Captagon recreationally after the defeat of Daesh in his native Ramadi, but quickly became addicted. (AN Photo/Meethak Al-Khatib)

“There are not many job opportunities here, so when you have a job, you have to stick to it. If you lose your job, you might not have another for many years. The longest I have stayed awake with no sleep is three days.”

Captagon is popular among students who use it to study through the night in the misguided belief they will achieve better grades as a result. In practice, Ali found it had quite the opposite effect.

“Once I had an exam and I took two and a half pills at once. My body started to shake. I could not write anything. My hands were very shaky. This was the largest amount I have taken at once.”

The street value for two Captagon pills in Ramadi is 5,000 IQD ($3.43). As smugglers are able to move millions of these tiny pills concealed inside shipments of legitimate goods, dealers stand to profit immensely from a reliable base of local addicts.

Anbar police declined to speak to Arab News about their fight against Captagon, but recently trumpeted their success in several raids, which led to 19 arrests and the seizure of 134,589 pills between April and July of this year.

Nevertheless, Captagon continues to spread throughout Anbar and into neighboring provinces. Many are now urging authorities to change tack and to treat drug users as patients in need of rehabilitation rather than criminals and moral deviants.

Noureddine Al-Hamdani, 28, volunteers with Peace Forum, an independent group founded in 2017 to address the many social ills blighting the lives of Ramadi residents, from domestic violence to civil rights violations.

Noureddine regularly joins his team of volunteers in the city’s bustling Anbar Bazaar to distribute pamphlets about drug addiction. He believes the spread of drug use can be linked directly to the psychological impact of war.

“The war with Daesh was one of the main reasons for the spread of Captagon here,” Noureddine said.

Noureddine Al-Hamdani, 28, volunteers with Peace Forum, an independent group founded in 2017 to address the many social ills blighting the lives of Ramadi residents. (AN Photo/Meethak Al-Khatib)

As a result, the province has not only become a major regional conduit for drug trafficking but also a lucrative market. “Anbar is a strategic area bordering several countries where drugs are moved into the country. But now Anbar has become an area that consumes drugs,” he said.

Noureddine believes the local police are fighting a losing battle and that resources could be far better spent on providing rehabilitation services, which might help to reduce demand for Captagon.

“There are no health institutions that can help drug addicts in Anbar. That means users are scared to tell people they are users or to go to the authorities to tell them they are users and that they want medical help. The authorities see them as criminals. Because of this, drug use is increasing.

“Users are not criminals. Unfortunately, the authorities jail users with criminals and people accused of terrorism and other crimes.

“We want the government to provide health care for users where they can get help and beat their addiction. Despite our many calls to local and central government, we are not getting any response.”

Anbar police display packets of Captagon pills and a suspect seized during a recent drugs bust. (Supplied)

Under Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein drug offenses carried the death penalty. Since his ouster in 2003, the Iraqi justice system has softened, but continues to jail people for even minor drug offenses.

Law No. 50 on Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, issued in 2017, allows courts to issue jail terms of one to three years and impose hefty fines for the import, production, or possession of narcotics. Article 288 of the same law stipulates life imprisonment for those found guilty of setting up drug dens.

Still, according to the World Drug Report 2020, drug trafficking in and through Iraq has been increasing steadily since 2003. Hamid Ali Jasim, an attorney in Ramadi who specializes in narcotics cases, believes the system is not working. “Before 2003, Iraq was always a drug-transit country, where drugs were trafficked from Iran to Syria, Gulf states and Lebanon. Iraq was not a drug-consuming or producing country until after 2003,” Jasim said.

“Before 2003, anti-drugs laws were so harsh that possessing just a few narcotic pills could mean a death sentence. Then, in 2017, a new drugs law was issued in Iraq, which also classified Captagon as a psychoactive drug.”

But when authorities realized dealers and users were not deterred, they imposed even tougher sentences. Now, possession of a hundred Captagon pills can carry up to six years in prison and a minimum fine of 10 million IQD ($6,850).

“The court believed heavy sentences would mean the consumption of drugs would fall, but this was wrong,” Jasim said. “We do not have any health institutions that can offer treatment to convicted drug users and the authorities believe locking people will solve the drug issue.”

Hamid Ali Jasim, an attorney in Ramadi who specializes in narcotics cases, believes Iraq's counter-narcotics policy is not working. (AN Photo/Meethak Al-Khatib)

Jasim believes the epidemic of drug use is also made worse by corruption within the prison system. “After 2003, many police officers — I don’t say all, but the majority — were not satisfied with their pay rates, so they started to look for other sources of income such as providing phone calls or other things to inmates for money, including Captagon,” he said.

Jasim also alleges properties are frequently raided without a valid court order, that suspects are often denied their right to have a lawyer present during questioning, and that torture is commonplace in police custody.

“In most cases, police use illegal methods during the interrogation to find out where the suspect got their supply,” Jasim said.

Others are alleged to have extracted bribes from drug dealers in exchange for reduced prison terms. “In some cases, dealers make ‘an arrangement’ with the authorities to be sent to court as users, not as dealers, to get a lower sentence.”

Because of the massive backlog of cases, investigations are often rushed, evidence filed incorrectly, and sentences handed down without due process. “Drug trials here take no more than 15 minutes,” Jasim said. “Many people have been unfairly prosecuted.”

Iraqi security forces protect Peace Forum volunteers in downtown Ramadi. (AN Photo/Meethak Al-Khatib)

For Captagon users such as Ali, too frightened to speak out openly, the system is broken. “I wish there was a rehab clinic here. I would go if there was one,” he said.

But before Iraq’s legal and medical infrastructure can adapt, the language around drug addiction and mental illness must change. “People think if you take illegal substances, you are a dangerous person,” Ali said.

“You find depressed young people everywhere in Iraq. Life here is not normal. But people are afraid to go see a psychologist. Customs and traditions prevent them from doing this. People would think you’re crazy.

“Young people here are scrolling on social media and can see what life is like outside of Iraq and how it’s better. That makes them depressed. It can give them a reason to use Captagon.”


Twitter: @meethak55 / @RobertPEdwards