DUBAI // The prescription medication tramadol has emerged as the drug of choice for most recreational users in the UAE.
Experts estimate that between 2 per cent and 4 per cent of the population misuse prescription medication and users as young as 12 are reporting to rehabilitation centres with problems.
Evidence from the National Rehabilitation Centre in Abu Dhabi shows that people are not put off by the UAE’s strict punishment of drugs crimes.
Dr Ali Al Marzouqi, the director of public health and research at the centre, said that more than 400 patients are registered at the facility and, of them, 240 abuse tramadol.
Most patients are between the ages of 18 and 25, although some as young as 12 have been found to be experimenting with drugs, he said.
Tramadol is an opiate used legally to treat moderate to severe pain, but recreational users find it has heroin-like qualities.
Police have warned that abuse of this drug can lead to difficulty in breathing, dizziness, seizures, nausea, stomach pain, low or high blood pressure and even death.
Dr Dolly Habbal, clinical psychologist at Gulf Diagnostic Hospital in Abu Dhabi, said that tramadol is probably more abused than other drugs because it is easier to get than illegal drugs.
She said there have been many cases of people mixing alcohol with tramadol pills.
“This makes the effect of the tramadol pill so much stronger and it can very well possibly lead to death,” Dr Habbal said, adding that it is very addictive and will lead to severe withdrawal symptoms when a user stops using it.
She said many abusers fake symptoms and say they are in pain to get a prescription for tramadol.
“We still try to educate these people and tell them that if they are suffering from depression or anxiety, those pills will actually make it worse,” she said. “There should be more awareness against the dangers of the heroin-like pill in schools and in the home.”
Col Eid Thani Hareb, director of the anti-narcotics unit at Dubai Police, said most cases they deal with involve tramadol.
Lt Col Jumaa Al Shamsi, director of the Department of Drug Awareness and Prevention, said: “Because it is a painkiller, some may take advantage of the doctors’ prescriptions, but this is a very dangerous drug that can be addictive and fatal if abused.”
He urged the public to call the free police hotline on 800 400 400 if they suspect someone of abusing drugs.
The majority of the pills seem to arrive on UAE shores from Iran, and mainly by sea. Tramadol pills from Iran were the most common illegal medication smuggled into the UAE last year, when 395,839 packages were intercepted by authorities.
In March this year, Dubai Customs made one of its largest recent seizures, with the recovery of three million pills valued at Dh60 million, giving each pill a street value of Dh20.
A Dubai Police study from last year showed that 37 per cent of drug users were influenced by “ill-intentioned friends”, while 27 per cent said their abuse was “experimentation, out of curiosity” and 22 per cent said it was as a result of broken or dysfunctional families.
“We continue to raise awareness against the dangers of drugs and, in particular, against the dangers of pill abuse, because it plays a big part in combating drug abuse,” said Col Hareb.
Although drug abusers go from doctor to doctor to obtain prescriptions, Dr Habbal said the introduction of an electronic system to monitor the prescription and sale of medicines was making progress in combating drug abuse.
“It is much harder now for patients to go to several doctors to get the same prescription. It’s all monitored,” she said.