Monday, November 23, 2020

Battling illicit drug use in Palestine

By F.F. Dawkins - September 09, 2019
Section: [Main News] [IN PICTURES] [Features]

The social stigma of drug abuse and fear of exclusion has kept the experiences and stories of Palestinian drug addicts under the surface of the Palestinian society for decades. 

For two decades has the stigma surrounding drug addiction been tackled by activists and medics, through advocacy and awareness campaigns in the media and schools, which eventually led to the opening of the first government-led methadone centre in 2014 which provides methadone, along-side psychological and medical support for 207 patients, of which only two are female patients.

However, only recently in spring of 2019 the Ministry of Health opened an inpatient treatment rehab centre for drug addiction in Bethlehem. 

Although the numbers of patients are slowly increasing, Dr Saed Bilbaisi, director of the methadone centre, wishes to provide services for more patients. “The problem is that many are not aware of this program, although we started several media campaigns. Furthermore, the stigma and fear of getting exposed, hinders many people to come.”

However, before the government established this facility, two rehab centres in the West Bank, led by civil associations, were providing help for drug consumers, while Gaza only has one addiction rehab centre. 

According to the latest report from the Ministry of Health there are 26,500 high risk drug users in Palestine. The majority of the drug consumers smoke marijuana and synthetic marijuana, referred to as “hydro” orMr Nice Guy”, which mimics the effects of marijuana, but has higher health risks.

Difficult fight against drug trafficking 

Primarily “hydro” possesses new difficulties for the Palestinian police. Initially produced in Israel and trafficked via the borders, nowadays the synthetic drug is also produced in Palestine.

The absence of a unified Palestinian authority and police system, weak law enforcement and the limited control of borders to prevent drug trafficking are contributing to a rise in drug trafficking in Palestine.

In conversation with Palestine Monitor, the chief of the Anti-Narcotics Department of the Palestinian Police, Breg Abdallah Ilawie, said: “In 2013 we started to see the spread of synthetic drugs, such as “hydro” in Israel. Because of the connection between Palestinians and Israelis, some Palestinians, who are working in Israel started bringing those drugs into Palestine. Following this dynamic, since 2015, we have a lot of synthetic marijuana in Palestine.”

“hydro”, “Mr Nice”; synthetic marijuana in all its different shapes

In the past years, the drug has swept over the whole West Bank. Last year the police confiscated 262 kilograms of synthetic marijuana, compared to 15 kilograms of hashish.

Although the police tried to focus on drug hotspots, such as Al-Ram, their operations show few effects, as the drug dealers move on to towns in Area B and C where the Palestinian Police have little or no jurisdiction.

“We face different problems. First of all, we don’t control our borders, so we can’t stop the drug trafficking here. Secondly, there is no direct cooperation between the Israeli and Police and Palestinian Police. So, if we like to make an operation in a village for example in Area B, it takes hours before we get the approval,” Ilawie said.

Much more, according to Ilawie, the Israeli authorities are hindering operations of the Anti-Narcotic department. “We have pursued operations close to the Qalandiya checkpoint, where many dealers are. Until the Israeli forces warned us that they would shoot the next time they see officers from the Anti-Narcotic Department.” 

Ilawie explained this is a problem because, “Now, when the dealers see an officer of my department, they go to the Israeli forces and tell them.”

Drug Rehabilitation in Palestine

Long before the Palestinian Authorities began recognising drug abuse in Palestine as a problem, drug addicts had the possibility to seek rehabilitation at civil association led rehab centres. One of these centres can be found in Al-Eizariya, a small town three kilometres from Jerusalem. Founded in 1986, the Al-Sadiq Al-Taieb Association brought the first rehab centre in Palestine to life in 1991.

Today, there are 22 two male patients in the rehab centre, many of whom are addicted to synthetic marijuana.  

Mohammed* is one of the 22 patients at the rehab centre, who is not only in therapy for the use of heroin but also for a variety of other substances, including “hydro”.

Born and raised in Camp Shu’fat, Mohammed started taking drugs at 16. “Over the years, I started smoking marijuana and ended up consuming heroin. Every time I would have no heroin, I would instead smoke “nice” or “hydro” because it is way cheaper,” Mohammed explained.

To sustain his drug abuse over time, he started stealing from friends and family. Now at the age of 35, he has spent seven years in prison for various reasons, all linked to his drug consumption. “This is now the fourth time that I am in rehab. I want to finish drugs this time forever, to help my wife and my four children; they need someone to rely on.”

Before the widespread recognition of the centre, Majed Alloush, Director and co-founder of the rehab centre, told Palestine Monitor, the associations had to fight against resentment in the community. “At the beginning, no one liked us because the people were not even accepting the idea that drug abuse exists in Palestine,” Mr Alloush said.

“After seven months, we had our first client in the centre, and from there on, slowly more people came,” he added.

Located in Area B, the centre is situated adjacent to the main road of Al-Eizariya. Surrounded by a high wall and equipped with barred windows, the rehab facility gives the impression of a prison on the first sight. Entering the centre, one of the patients, Adnan*, opens up about his unique story.

Adnan’s family moved in the 1960s from Palestine to the US. Born and raised in Jersey, he started occasionally smoking marijuana at the age of 13. His problematic relation to drugs only started after he was receiving prescription medication due to a leg injury. After six months he was addicted to prescription drugs and was seeking an alternative to satisfy his addiction. During this time he slowly started using stronger drugs and ended up snorting heroin for five years.

Adnan managed to hide his addiction from his family and friends over the years. “No, one would have even imagined that I was taking heroin. I was always that guy who had everything under control. I had a decent job, I was taking care of my family, I did sport. It was a big shock when I eventually told them,” Adnan said.

A sample of confiscated drugs and utensils from the Police

He continued to live his life in that fashion until a life-threatening experience changed everything. “I ended up dying for four minutes, and my five-year-old daughter found me lying unconscious on the floor. That’s the point where I said 'enough’. After that, I went to rehab in the US for four days, and the day I left, I packed my stuff and went right away to Palestine.”

When asked why he had chosen to pursue is rehab in Palestine instead of the US, Adnan explained, “Back in Jersey, I know every dealer. It's way easier for me here to refrain from drugs”.

Like any other patient in the centre, he pays around 1000 US dollars a month for food and personal purchases from outside, as he is not allowed to leave the centre.

Furthermore, like many others in the centre, Adnan is going 'cold turkey’, a sudden and abrupt quitting of substance use. Although going cold-turkey from heroin could lead to life-threatening medical conditions, such as seizures and heart problems, there is one doctor on call within the centre to observe the medical condition of the patients. Alternatively, the rehab centre relies on emergency services.  

Director of the rehab centre Majed Alloush hopes to expand his program and advocacy towards drug awareness, so more people in Palestine can receive the treatment they need, without facing social stigma. “We are planning on expanding our drug awareness campaigns,” he explained. “For the upcoming months we have planned a drug prevention program with the Harvard university.”



*due to the social stigma and the threat of social exclusion, the editorial board of Palestine Monitor decided to not publish the names of the interviewed rehab patients, but instead use synonyms.

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