Arab states struggle with drugs

For some Arab states, treatment is emerging as a popular method to battle a rising tide of drug abuse.

Mohamed Hassan hasn't forgotten the good life. He had a big salary from an international firm, Procter and Gamble, and was zipping around the deserts of Saudi Arabia in his new Porsche. He eventually left for his homeland of Egypt where, he says now, there were much better drugs.

But this cocky pleasure-seeker finally hit the skids when his superiors informed him that his dreams of advancement would never come true.

"I made a list and went down that list abusing people by getting them to give me money," he says. "I spent almost $300,000 on drugs before I collapsed financially, physically, socially – and above all, spiritually."

Mr. Hassan was tossed in jail in Egypt and chained to the stairs where every cop who passed him kicked and spat upon him. It was an awakening both to the lack of existing help for drug abusers and to his own depravity, he says now.

"That is where I bottomed out," he says, adding that he spent the next six years in and out of rehabilitation.

Hassan, a devout Muslim, is now sober and determined, he vows, to "deal with the devil" he sees in the soul of every other addict he meets.

A new approach

Along with his colleagues at Freedom, a group that provides detoxification, rehabilitation, and drug awareness, he is also a part of what amounts to a revolutionary approach to substance abuse in the Middle East.

Nanis William, a drug abuse expert and counselor who worked at a Park Avenue treatment center in New York City until last year, says that Egyptians and fellow Arabs generally still think of drug abuse as "a moral issue, rather than a disease."

Fellow counselors and doctors across the Middle East, where drug abuse has been on the rise for over a decade, say that precious few state resources have been devoted to creating drug awareness and treating young people who fall into the trap of illicit narcotics.

In Egypt, Bango, a cheap marijuana product, is by far the most popular. Heroin is the new drug of choice for wealthy Arabs, but drugs sold in pharmacies are also increasingly popular.

"Here in Egypt, it is the Christians who use alcohol the most, but there is a perception among many Muslims, who are prohibited from using alcohol, that other drugs are OK since the Koran does not specifically forbid them," says Ms. William.

Dr. Ehab El-Kharrat, an Egyptian lecturer at the University of Kent in England, says that recent research shows that in some parts of the country up to 30 percent of young men use soft drugs like marijuana on a weekly basis and that 10 percent use them daily.

Across the Middle East there are new studies to show that young Arab men are indulging in abuse – both soft and hard drugs – at an alarming rate.

In Kuwait, for example, where unemployment is high but oil wealth still sustains youthful indulgences, a recent hospital study determined that nearly 1 percent of the population was addicted to hard drugs. The government has already decided to fund more treatment and rehabilitation efforts.

"For young Arabs, there is a growing sense of economic discontent combined with a sense that Westerners are having more fun," says Hassan, who, as a recovering addict, is now a manager with the Freedom project in Cairo. "Young people are like sitting ducks for drug pushers, who are targeting them at much younger ages than ever before," he says.

A recent UN-sponsored study in Egypt put simple "curiosity" as a factor in 97 percent of all initial drug use. Only 36 percent of the respondents cited frustration as a reason for indulging.

But William says that peer pressure is also on the rise. "The young kids think it is cool to use drugs," she says. "Often it is the more intelligent and risk-taking kids who try them first."

At the Freedom Farm about an hour outside of Cairo in a remote desert setting, 24 recovering addicts try to face up to the reasons they fell into the drug trap. Therapy at the farm is similar to that of many Western programs which stress the importance of recovering addicts treating their fellow addicts.

The farm is one of few facilities of its kind anywhere in the Arab world.

Addicts come from as far away as Syria, Iraq, and the United States to take part in a 12-step recovery program that takes between six months and a year.

Work as therapy

In addition to art therapy, there is work therapy that includes helping out on a South African-run ostrich farm.

Ayham Gded, a heroin addict, has been in and out of recovery centers for several years. "I was an isolated person even before I tried drugs," he says "I was shy and wanted release. I wanted to have more relationships. At first, drugs helped me open up, but after a while I had no friends at all." Seven months of sobriety at the Freedom Farm has Mr. Gded on the road to recovery.

The Freedom Farm's original Christian-based program in Wadi Natroun is now introducing a 12-step program that will complement a similar program already run in downtown Cairo, which treats mostly Muslims. Ashraf Yehia, the sponsor of the new program, will set the pace for young addicts.

Just two years ago, after locking himself in his room for seven months in an attempt to kick his own addiction, Mr. Yehia tried to take his own life. "I felt I could not live without drugs," he says as he reaches over a fence to feed a few ostriches. "There was no one around me to help."

"Drug use is on the rise due to unemployment and a growing sense of emptiness," says Yehia's supervisor, Miki Iskander. "A few years ago, there were no services at all for addicts. Eight years ago, the government only arrested people and threw them in jail. I, myself, was going to hospitals just to locate more dealers and find more drugs. This strict approach just makes the problem worse."

Another step that drug experts in Egypt want to see taken is a toughening of controls of over-the-counter drug sales. Current enforcement is lax, which has led to a boom in Egyptians seeking highs from drugs designed to treat everything from Parkinson's disease to epilepsy, they say.

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