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Cannabis trade 'flourishes' in northeastern Syria

(Zaman Al Wasl)- The sell and use of drugs have become a public and widespread phenomenon among youths in northern Syria in general and in the Qamishli province especially. Drug traffickers have increased their activities because there is no effective force on the ground deterring them from their activities. The expansive markets for their merchandise at the current time and the open border with Iraq and Turkey in recent years has facilitated their work. In the process, a generation of youths are in danger of becoming addicts, and the number of addicts is constantly increasing. In this following investigation, we will try to monitor the phenomenon, its causes and effects on society and families especially in the circumstances of war and chaos experienced in the country at this time. The report will end with specialists’ recommendations on how to fight this phenomenon.

Growing Cannabis 

Before the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2011, residents would say in low voices, ‘growing cannabis’ to a friend or acquaintance if that person had accumulated a lot of money in a short period. The situation in the far north east of the country is now very different. 

Ali Abdul Aziz, 38, recounted what happened to his father after he [his father] planted the hemp or cannabis plant on his land. He said, “The Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (PYD) checkpoint close to the village of al-Mirat east of Ras al-Ain overlooked my father’s land. My father had planted cannabis to get rid of his accumulated debts after all other means to pay them off were closed to him due to the increasing cost of agriculture and the scarcity of needed material.”

Ali continued, saying, “the fighters on the checkpoint knew the plant well, and they watched my father and brother entering among the corn with one of their partners who they called Abu Kawa to care for their new crop.” He explained that he and the rest of the family felt the plants were strange when his father burnt the plants that resulted from the individualization process on the excuse the plants had a serious disease which they might spread to the other crops in the field. 

The new crop was harvested and stored in a room reserved for sheep with the help of the partner whose real name is unknown. However, members of the PYD arrived and stopped the first sale operation. The two partners were put in prison and were made to pay a fine of 100,000 Syrian Pounds for each month of the prison sentence according to Ali. 

According to Ali, the two partners were later able to sell most of the product hidden in the barn walls. They first moved the merchandise to the Syrian-Turkish border with the help of a smuggler via one of the unofficial border crossing supervised by the PYD close to Alouk village east of Ras al-Ain. Once across the border in Turkey, cannabis is known by the reference al-Asrar. Ali explained that this agriculture traveled from the mountains in northern Iraq and south-east Turkey to Syria with the arrival of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) fighters to support the Syrian arm of the party PYD. 

Smuggling to Ain al-Arab

Regarding the care and preparing the cannabis for sale, Abdul Bari from the town of Abu Rasin said they planted a piece of their land with cannabis or hemp as it is locally known to improve their economic situation which had deteriorated after the war started. Abdul Bari was delegated to care for the crop and remove the flowering heads because the heads pollinate the remaining heads and make them open releasing a beautiful smell and ruining the narcotic heads in the process. To ensure the crop’s success, Abdul Bari would stay in the field from morning till night. 

Abdul Bari, 27, said that a man named Mustafa from Ain al-Arab (Kobani) supervised the process. He explained that Mustafa was known to the PYD for growing cannabis “so we had to be careful.” He added that the decisions within the Autonomous Administration at the time stipulated that seedlings needed to be burned only and later on fines were imposed. At this time, patrols confiscate the crows, impose a fine and a period of imprisonment for anyone caught growing cannabis.

Regarding the preparation process, Abdul Bari said that in the region, they collect only the good heads when the heads have reached a maturity of 25-30 cm or more according to the quality of the seedling. He explained that there is no expertise in the Abu Rasin area to make a past from the seeds, so the seeds are transported to Ain al-Arab (Kobani) or Turkey for the paste to be manufactured there.

The Kurdish Asayish forces, responsible for the security in areas under Syrian Democratic Force control in northern Syria, have around 300 security checkpoints dispersed among the cities and towns of the region. According to their data, 251 incidents of smuggling narcotics were recorded during 2017.

The Asayish forces arrested seven drug and cannabis dealers and seized the narcotics in their possession in five operations carried out in the last two months of 2017 in al-Hasakah and al-Raqqah. In one incident, the forces arrested a drug dealer, a SHA, in the area of Shara subordinate to Afrin in northern Aleppo on November 26, 2017. SHA was arrested with 9,000 Captagon (known in English as Fenetilin) pills. All the drug dealers and traffickers arrested were transferred to the Prosecution Commission subordinate to the Autonomous Administration. 

Previously, the Directorate General of the Division for Fighting Organized Crime in the Kurdish administration revealed statistics regarding the amount of pills, narcotic substances and cannabis seized by its offices in the al-Jazira (al-Hasakah) region from July 2016 until June 2017. Based on their statistics, 25922 pills and 86 sachets were seized. The substances included pills such as Captagon Fustan, Zolam, Baltane, Progital, Pogapaline, Tramadol, Pharma Pseudo, Sama Vide, Heczol, Clonazepam, Carizol, Sikroene and Oxy Codon Plus and these are news types of cannabis and opium commonly used by drug users. 

The Division also confiscated 31 grams of heroin, 27 other sachets, 162629 grams of hashish, and destroyed 1872 cannabis seedlings.

In Afrin north of Aleppo, the Asayish forces destroyed large amounts of drugs during a No to Narcotics campaign launched from February 1 to July 18, 2017. During the campaign, the forces confiscated 600 grams of hashish paste, 109 kilograms of green cannabis, 70,000 tablets of Capticol, 11,700 different narcotics and 35 kilograms of substances made from narcotic pills.

In the same context, Autonomous Administration’s PYD Media Center in Afrin confirmed that two of its members were imprisoned on charges of substance abuse. 

Keep me Awake in Qamishli 

As in all Syrian regions, the sales of Captagon in al-Hasakah and al-Qamishli increased with the war. The drug is referred to as the “ghost" pills because they keep addicts awake for three consecutive days. They are also referred to as ecstasy pills because they give addicts a strong sexual desire.”

Ahmad A., 30, is another victim of the widespread availability of drugs in Qamishli. He is unemployed, one of four boys and the youngest child in his family. His father died when he was young. He became addicted to cigarettes and alcohol after leaving school in the fourth grade and falling into bad company, he said. 

Ahmad’s mother and brother did not hold him accountable for his absences from home after he left school and his friends became closer to him than his family. They introduced him to drugs, and he started taking drugs at the age of fourteen.

Residents of the neighborhood on the outskirts of the Qamishli city say that Ahmad is a likeable young man, but his family circumstances and his friends kept him from experiencing a normal life. He became an addict, abandoned life and preoccupied himself with partying and chasing women. 

Ahmad said he takes three or more cigarettes, sometimes up to 10, per day. He usually smokes with his friends in open areas far away from prying eyes. He explained that he gets the cigarettes from dealers in al-Hilalya and Qadour Bey neighborhoods.

Ahmad caught hepatitis due to this substance abuse. He claims that he can leave drugs but his circumstances, the fragmentation of his family, the widespread availability of the drugs among youths and especially his friends, and the increasing number of drug dealers prevent him from quitting.

Ahmad's family live on the margins of life in al-Qamishli without paying attention to the dangers posed by drugs, theft, or even the threat of joining militant groups or mercenary militias. Ahmad’s mother is 60 and illiterate. She is busy with preparing food for her family and owns a small flock of sheep that she invests in by selling limited amounts of milk and yoghurt to the shops adjacent to her house. She does not recognize the signs of addiction that appear on her son. Ahmad’s brothers are daily laborers preoccupied with their work which prevented them from dealing with Ahmad and addressing his addiction. 

There are many reasons why youths engage in drug abuse including the disintegration of their families, the companion of abusive friends, poverty and the war. All these factors play an important role in the widespread availability of drugs and the public nature of their use in society.

Lack of Treatment Centers

Due to the absence of specialized medical centers for the treatment of addiction in Qamishli city and the lack of 
cooperation from the Organized Crime Department of the Asayish forces, we cannot know a real percentage of drug users and dealers.

According to a medical source, treatment for addiction is done in doctors private clinics due to the lack of specialized treatment centers in al-Qamishli. The source explained that the treatment methods vary based on the type of drug as some addictions are treated at home with the partial supervision of a doctor such as heroin addictions and others are exclusively treated in hospitals specialized in treating addictions such as alcoholism and benzodiazepine addiction. The length of the treatment depends on the length of the period of addiction.”

Without a doubt, the number of drug addicts in al-Qamishli city is increasing continuously. The main age group is between 25-30 years with a higher proportion of male users. There is a problem in treating these addicts due to the lack of hospitals specialized in addiction treatment according to a neurologist who preferred not to be named.

In the absence of specialized centers and the lack of accurate statistics concerning the number of addicts in al-Qamishli city, the neurologist estimated that “between 3-5% of his patients are addicts and the proportion of addicts who are soldiers is between 7-9% of his patients.”

“In our society’s case, the state and its institutions have no role. Perhaps some institutions may have a role in promoting them. The only institutions that work are humanitarian organizations, despite their scarcity, weak financial and scientific capabilities, and the control of political agendas and attempts to harness them [organizations] for ideological purposes,” said the neurologist. 

Narcotics are one of the biggest threats to society and work to dismantle and disintegrate them. Narcotics are a violation of the law and push their users to violate the law to obtain the narcotics after their addiction. The promotion and sales of these products are now widespread in Syria due to the deterioration of the security situation and the control of various factions in big areas of the country. These factions do not have the experience to combat this phenomenon and, at times, they encourage its spread. Also the Syrian border has become open to drug traffickers as a result of the ongoing battles along the border. Many have taken advantage of the absence of security in these areas to promote drugs among citizens.

Zaman Al Wasl
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