Iraq is a major political entity in the Middle East region and its proximity to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers has supported a long history of innovating civilizations. However, the aftereffects of war and political turmoil continue to threaten its population of 41 million. From 1979 to 2003, authoritarian president Saddam Hussein presided over the country until a U.S. invasion forced his removal and precipitated the Iraq War. Since then, Iraq has conducted parliamentary elections and made progress toward a transparent democracy.
However, ISIS-related conflicts and a lingering U.S. presence have hindered Iraq’s success and its governmental agencies have been slow to meet its citizens’ needs. Under Hussein, drug trafficking and recreational drug use were illegal, even punishable by death. However, since Hussein’s fall and the Iraq War, anti-drug policies have eased and the country’s economy has continued to struggle.
In 2022, according to Iraq’s Ministry of Planning, 25% of Iraqis lived below the poverty line. Similarly, the U.N. ‘s 2020 World Drug Report evidenced a steady increase in drug trafficking in Iraq since 2003, constituting a veritable crisis. Here’s what to know about drug abuse in Iraq.
High Unemployment Encourages Drug Abuse in Iraq
The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 severely disrupted its local industry. Additionally, the succeeding conflicts of the past 20 years have only further stunted economic development, private sector growth and social security reform. In 2022, Iraq’s Ministry of Planning partnered with the International Labor Organization (ILO) to conduct a labor force survey.
The study reported a national unemployment rate of 16.5% or one unemployed person for every five employed persons. The unemployment rate proved particularly high amongst Iraqi youth, standing at 35.8%. In Basra, a vital port city in Iraq’s southern region, its appellate court found that among arrested drug offenders, roughly 90% were unemployed. As drug officials note, traffickers often target the country’s underprivileged, encouraging addiction and participation in the drug trade.
Crystal Meth Poses the Most Serious Threat
Under Hussein, the Iraqi drug trade existed mostly underground, deterred by harsh penalties and tight border control. However, after the U.S. invasion and Hussein’s deposing in 2003, the Iraqi borders have softened, allowing an influx of drugs from neighboring countries like Iran and Afghanistan.
Since 2017, Afghani drug manufacturers have accelerated the production of methamphetamine, utilizing the ephedra plant that grows naturally on Afghan hillsides. Iraq has proven a valuable market as it battles high unemployment and political instability. Crystal meth accounts for 60% of the Iraqi drug trade and many have sought the drug as an antidote to trauma or job insecurity, hoping to score more hours and better wages.
Widespread Corruption Prevents Anti-Drug Mobilization
Since 2003, anti-crime networks have deteriorated, particularly in Basra, where religious and tribal factions continue to vie for control. Like Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, Basra is at the center of the Iraqi drug problem and its designated anti-drug units are mobilized nightly. However, lack of funding, government corruption and inadequate technology have hindered the units’ efficacy.
Additionally, Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units–militia groups formed in 2014 to combat ISIS–are allegedly complicit in the drug trade, exerting influence amongst traffickers and government officials alike. Tellingly, anti-drug units have yet to capture any high-level traffickers whose identities remain unknown or protected.
The Prison System and Drug Abuse in Iraq
The government’s response to drug abuse in Iraq has mostly consisted of criminal penalties, threatening up to three years in prison for individuals who use, possess or transport illegal drugs. In 2018, 1400 people in Basra alone were convicted of sale or possession of illegal drugs, predominantly crystal meth.
In the first six months of 2022, the Iraqi government arrested 8000 people on drug-related charges, overcrowding both pre-trial holding cells and state-run prisons. After release, many offenders are discriminated against for their addiction and criminal history and often struggle to find reliable work. Without employment opportunities, some return to the drug trade, aiming to save themselves and their families from poverty.
Road to Recovery
As a predominantly Muslim country, Iraq has struggled to address addiction openly, resorting instead to police crackdowns. Drug users who voluntarily seek treatment are exempt from criminal penalties, but space in rehabilitation facilities remains limited. For instance, Basra has just one rehab center, with only 44 available beds, despite its population of 4 million.
However, in July 2023, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani ordered the establishment of rehabilitation facilities in all Iraqi provinces except the Kurdistan region. Similarly, al-Sudani ordered Iraq’s state media to organize awareness campaigns, explaining the toll of drug use and associated criminal penalties. In expanding its rehabilitation system, the government seeks to decrease repeat offenders and challenge widespread drug abuse in Iraq.
Ever since 2003, Iraq has struggled to maintain a functioning economy and its poverty and unemployment rates have accordingly spiked. Coping with both financial insecurity and recurring conflict, many Iraqis have turned to drugs, especially crystal meth, to provide salvation, straining Iraqi police forces and clogging its prison system. Government officials, recognizing the danger of drug abuse in Iraq, have promised an upgrade to its network of rehabilitation centers. However, critics note that drug abuse will decrease only when Iraq improves its economic outlook and offers its citizens a chance of success outside of the drug trade.
– Sydney Verdi