Abdul* estimates that he has spent more than $70,000 on drugs over the past three years. The 29-year-old Baghdad native comes from a well-off family of doctors and engineers. He once drove a BMW, had thousands of dollars in the bank, and often indulged his fondness for gold jewelry. Today, all that is gone, used along with anything else he owned of value to feed his addiction. It has, he says, completely ruined his life.
It’s not just his finances that have suffered — he failed to provide for his family too. Abdul looks tough; stocky, with slicked back hair and homemade tattoos on his arms. But when he talks about his wife of four years and shows VICE News pictures of his young son and daughter, he is suddenly racked with sobs.
"At night I'd look at my children, and start crying because of what I’ve done," he said, wiping tears from his face.
In Iraq, stories like Abdul’s are becoming more and more common. Substance abuse is just one of the many consequences of the country's headline-hitting problems.
It’s hard to place exact figures on how prevalent the issue has become. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is in the process of implementing a joint program -- currently suspended due to the precarious security situation -- with the World Health Organization and the Iraqi Ministry of Health to improve treatment. However, Elizabeth Sáenz, a Project Coordinator with the UNODC's drug Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation Section told VICE News that a lack of data was a major issue for the project.
"One of the big problems in Iraq is lack of information about magnitude and nature of the problem," she says. But Sáenz, the doctors, narcotic experts, and users all agree on one thing: drug use and abuse is on the rise across the country.
Since Saddam Hussein’s removal from power by the US in 2003, Iraq has been gripped by regular violence, various degrees of lawlessness, and rampant corruption. In Baghdad, for example, almost everyone has lost a loved one, a home, or at the very least, a job. The result is widespread emotional trauma, and the incentive to self-medicate. In other words, the perfect climate to encourage drug use.
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"There are now far more psychological and economic problems and more cases of conditions like depression as a result," Dr. Mohammed el-Korashy, Deputy National Advisor for Mental Health with the Iraqi Ministry of Health, told VICE News.
At the same time, the precarious security situation has allowed more illicit substances into the country.
Some of this was incidental. Smugglers were quick to take advantage of more porous post-conflict borders to transport drugs from production centers like Afghanistan and Iran through Iraq and onwards to Turkey, Israel, the Gulf, and beyond. A portion, however, is inevitably offloaded in transit.
This has also meant that the substances being abused in Iraq have changed as well. Alcohol has been legal for more than half a century, and as a result, alcoholism has been a regular occurrence among both rich and poor for at least as long — fine scotch for those with money and Jordanian whisky for those without, as Korashy puts it. Since the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, he adds, there have also been major issues with prescription drugs like Benzhexol and Diazepam. These have been exacerbated by a general willingness from pharmacists and doctors to prescribe these medications to anyone who asks, Sáenz says.
"I took my first breath and I felt like I was in a different world."
Now though, there are new drugs on the scene. Pharmacists working in the narcotics lab of Baghdad’s central hospital complex told VICE News that their caseloads had changed recently to include far more opiates — notably the painkiller Tramadol — and amphetamines — including methamphetamine, otherwise known as crystal meth and Captagon.
It was meth, known locally as “ice”, which led to Abdul’s ruinous addiction.
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Hashish was always common among his peer group, he said, but ice suddenly hit the streets in 2010. He first tried it after spotting some at a friend’s house and asking what it was. The friend was evasive and tried to warn Abdul off.
"He told me; ‘if you try this, you will lose your life’,” he recalled. After an argument though, the friend relented. "I took my first breath and I felt like I was in a different world." He was hooked. Soon afterwards, he called his friend and begged for more.
Abdul says he knows hundreds in the grip of meth addiction.
"It's a disaster, in one neighborhood I know 50 girls who are addicts…. they become prostitutes for more," he said. "You are addicted from the first time you try it."
He tells horror story after horror story. The friend who stole his mother's jewelry for drug money, another who gave his prized Kickers boots to a dealer for a gram and walked home barefoot. The man who killed his brother and his brother’s family because they wouldn't give him drug money. The desperate addict who shot a man four times, at the behest of his dealer, in exchange for just three grams of the drug. The victim survived, Abdul adds, but is now paralyzed from the neck down. "You will do anything for one breath," he said. “Anything.”
There is some help available, although it is limited. Korashy, who is also a senior specialist psychiatrist at Baghdad’s Ibn Rushd Psychiatric Hospital, presides over the country's only dedicated, isolated unit for addiction treatment. However, it only has space for 10 inpatients. Outpatients are treated too, but this consists of anti-addiction medications followed by checkups every three to four weeks for a period of three months and even then, they only have space for two or three a day.
It is here that Abdul finally sought help, and he speaks highly of the facility. "I've been here for a week and I haven't been home, and I don't want to go home,” he says. “I miss my children and my wife, but I want to get these drugs out of my body forever."
As valuable as the unit is, even Korashy admits that it falls short in terms of scale. The only other option available is treatment in one of Iraq’s other general psychiatric wards. "This is certainly not enough,” he said, shaking his head gravely. Sáenz adds that the treatment system needs to be to expanded to reflect the chronic and relapsing nature of addiction and include a range of community outreach elements.
Korashy said that progress is being made though, partly through cooperation with the UNODC and the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). "We feel like we are doing good work,” he said.
However, treatment is not the only issue. Dealing with the drugs trade is not a priority for authorities and efforts at prevention are limited beyond routine border patrols, according to the US State Department's 2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, which said: "…this focus on seizing drug shipments at the borders has rarely been accompanied by further investigation into the sources of the narcotics or by arrests and prosecutions of top leaders of drug trafficking enterprises. The Iraqi Federal Police do not devote significant resources to drug cases."
Worse still, Iraq is notoriously corrupt — it ranks 171 out of 177 in Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index 2013 — and Abdul said that security forces often turn a blind eye to dealers or are even actively involved. He said that he was able to get away with his colossal addiction because his uncle is a high-ranking police officer and got him out of trouble. Even worse, he said dealers in Baghdad are protected by the police in exchange for a cut of the profits.
He adds that the links between the authorities and drug rings are so strong, that in the run up to April's parliamentary elections, one of the city's biggest dealers said that he would give a quarter gram of heroin to anyone who would swear on the Quran three times to vote for incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Hundreds, he added, took the dealer up on the offer.
"This addiction is destroying us day by day.”
The authorities are aware of the issue, a foreign official working regularly with the Ministry of Healthy told VICE News.
"There is no information on the size of the problem [corruption], but officials are aware of it and are not shy in discussing it in a professional context," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "They have indicated that in some slum areas there are particular problems related to corruption [and drug dealing]."
Abdul said he thinks the only chance of meaningful change, however, is a new administration that will de-politicize the security forces and tackle the endemic corruption. In the meantime, he hopes that more facilities like the one he is being treated at are launched.
"I hope they can help the rest of the youth," he says. "Because this addiction is destroying us day by day.”
*Name has been changed to preserve his anonymity.
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck