Drug abuse on the rise in Jordan

More than 3,500 Jordanians are addicted to drugs, mostly to hashish and such pills as tranquillisers, according to Anti-Narcotic Department officials.

AMMAN // In the past nine years, Nader smoked marijuana, took amphetamines, snorted cocaine and injected heroin. Breaking the habit was not something on his mind. But when he overdosed and nearly died, it was a wake-up call he took seriously. "It was four o'clock in the morning when the syringe broke in my right arm while I was taking heroin. I overdosed and fell unconscious for six hours," said Nader, 30, sitting in a government-run rehabilitation centre waiting for a medical check-up.

Nader used a different name to avoid embarrassment and to escape a prison sentence of up to two years if caught taking drugs. More than 3,500 Jordanians are addicted to drugs, mostly to hashish and such pills as tranquillisers, according to Anti-Narcotic Department (AND) officials. Drug abuse came under the spotlight recently when the prime minister, Nader Dahabi, said drug trafficking, addiction and cultivation were growing in Jordan.

"We cannot keep hiding our heads in the sand and say that we do not have a problem with drugs. We all have to confront this phenomenon," he told parliament in December. It was the first time a public official acknowledged that Jordan was facing a problem with drug abuse. Last year, AND apprehended 944 people for drug trafficking and 3,687 others for possessing and taking drugs that included opium, hashish, heroin, marijuana and amphetamines.

Jordanian narcotics officials often said the country's strategic location between drug-producing and drug-consuming countries makes it a transit point for drugs and that more than 80 per cent of drugs seized are destined for abroad. The amount of amphetamine pills seized in Jordan increased substantially between 2001 and 2007 and has remained high since then, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report last year.

In 2001, there were 42 seizures compared with 218 in 2007. Just three months ago, AND foiled an attempt to smuggle 3.5 million amphetamine pills via Jordan to neighbouring countries in one of its largest trafficking operations. Seven people were implicated in the case. The government has in the past four years installed X-ray machines in all its border posts and uses police sniffer dogs to detect drugs.

"Discovering attempts at trafficking has increased because of the new technologies," said Brig Tayel Majali, head of AND. The government has also built a rehabilitation centre to help users overcome their addiction. The National Centre for the Rehabilitation of Addicts, where Nader is seeking treatment, cost US$3 million (Dh11m) and provides free medical services and counselling for Jordanians fighting addiction.

Since its inception in 2001, the centre has treated more than 1,700 addicts. Forty-seven women have also sought the centre's services since 2005, with 25 receiving treatment as resident patients. There are also two other centres that provide rehabilitation, one run by the public security department and the other by the private sector. Brig Majali said efforts were under way to amend the country's drug laws so that those who are caught consuming drugs for the first time will not be prosecuted in courts provided that they receive treatment at a rehabilitation centre.

While the country's laws exempt addicts from penalties if they voluntarily seek medical treatment, a cultural stigma deters addicts from joining rehabilitation centres. "We deal with our patients with utmost confidentiality," said Jamal Anani, the NCRA director general. "We don't know the exact numbers of addicts, and whatever numbers are reported in the rehabilitation centres are only the tip of the iceberg.

"Many addicts do not seek help because of the stigma and the fear of law enforcement. But for us, we view addiction as an illness, a medical model, and we want people to consider it this way." Mohammed, 33, is another addict undergoing detox at NCRA. He came off drugs two years ago when his parents sent him abroad for treatment, but he turned to alcohol instead. Mohammed, who began smoking marijuana when he was 18, said he stopped taking drugs out of "fear".

"The security here treats someone who smokes half a marijuana [cigarette] as if he possesses 10 kilograms of heroin." Mohammed was on his fourth day of detox and, struggling with the effects of withdrawal, paused between sentences trying to gather his thoughts. "We don't want addiction to be a taboo; there is treatment. "If an addict goes to prison, he will end up with psychological problems. Imprisonment should not be the penalty where one is placed with murderers and rapists. Penalties should be less harsh, combined with treatment."