Turkmenistan works to eradicate drug addiction

Counter-narcotic measures by authorities are apparently cutting into the availability of drugs and the incidence of drug addiction, law enforcement officers and drug abuse therapists say.

By Dzhumaguly Annayev

2013-09-24

ASHGABAT – Turkmenistan is reportedly making progress with respect to its goal of protecting the public from the harmful effects of drugs, psychotropic substances and drug precursors.

The change has come after a few years of a national effort to reduce drug addiction.

Before 2006, drug dealers and pushers were selling opium, cocaine and marijuana on practically every street corner in Turkmenistan, Dashoguz drug abuse specialist Dr. Hemra Gutlyyev said.

"For every 100,000 residents, we officially had 400 drug addicts, but we knew that the real figure was 10 times that," Gutlyyev said of that era. "The police weren't arresting those who possessed a few grams of drugs. Drug dealing was punished, but possession and use were not."

Against that backdrop, the country in 2008 launched a nationwide drive to cut back on drug abuse and addiction.

"The situation has now finally changed," Gutlyyev said, adding that Turkmenistan now has an estimated 120 drug addicts per 100,000 residents.

And more measures are in store as the country steps up its fight against drug abuse.

"This year, we are staging an ambitious campaign against drug abuse and are visiting schools, colleges and clubs," he said.

"We are broadcasting a number of TV programmes about drug abuse, and we have set up drug hotlines."

Inter-agency co-operation was key

Success emerged because the State Service for Protecting the Security of a Healthy Society (GSOBZO, the country's anti-drug police) began working together with other Turkmen law enforcement agencies, domestic and international NGOs, and Turkmen healthcare and educational agencies, Merdan K., an Akhal Oblast-based GSOBZO special agent, said.

"Beforehand, all the security forces were trying to combat drug abuse, but their work was reminiscent of the main characters of the famous fable by Ivan Krylov, 'The Swan, the Pike and the Crab,'" he said, referring to the tale in which each of the three characters wanted to achieve the same end. They didn't work together and instead ended up trying to pull a cart in different directions.

In 2008, a single co-ordinating centre called the State Service for Drug Control [the precursor of GSOBZO] was founded with the goal of directing the fight against drugs so that all agencies were working toward the same outcome. "It has had a positive impact on the final results," he said.

Attack on underlying causes of drug abuse

When it comes to drug production and trafficking, Turkmenistan finds itself in a situation that is fairly limited in scope.

"Few drugs are produced in the country itself; if someone grows narcotic plants, they are generally just for personal consumption, and law enforcement quickly finds and destroys them," Merdan K. said.

As part of its anti-drug campaign, the government has pursued a strategy of trying to attack the root causes of drug use, he said, and that involves stepping up security at the borders.

"The majority of the drugs are smuggled in from Afghanistan," Merdan K. said. "Therefore, increased drug monitoring has taken effect at all border crossings, and authorities have taken a more thorough approach in the annual anti-drug Operation Goknar (Poppy)."

More important, though, the principle of "irreversible punishment" for drug dealing has had the biggest impact, he said. In the past five years, authorities have convicted several hundred drug dealers, GSOBZO's statistics indicate. Its agents have burned several tonnes of narcotics in special furnaces near Ashgabat during periodic, public events.

And once sentenced, drug dealers today are being labeled as ineligible for any kind of pardon, a practice that has played a crucial role in the war on drugs by ensuring that convicted drug dealers serve their entire sentence, said Tejen doctor Salykh Hojakakayev, whose city suffered from what was practically a drug addiction epidemic leading up to 2006.

The harsher sentencing has had secondary effects, too.

"Of course, there are still many Turkmens who want to buy drugs, but it is now difficult for them to do so, because firstly, the drug traffickers have gone deep underground, and secondly, the drugs have become unaffordable for many people," Gutlyyev said.

Although the country has made some strides in its fight against drug use, Turkmenistan still should pursue other avenues to continue fighting the narcotics trade, Hojakakayev said, mentioning social programmes as another area of focus.

"It is time to develop and adopt a programme for the treatment, rehabilitation and provision of assistance to drug addicts and to fix problems in the occupational therapy rehabilitation centres and dependency clinics; otherwise, the government will have to create an agency like the one that handles alcoholism," he said.

The social approach is complementary to the punishment aspect if the country is to have long-term success in the anti-drug effort, Merdan K. said.

"We need to help those who want to go clean and return to a normal life, but we need to expose the ones who are secretly continuing to profit from drug dealing and poisoning the lives of others," he said.

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