Could Drug Abuse be Influencing the War(s) in the Middle East?

Could Drug Abuse be Influencing the War(s) in the Middle East?

The Middle East is dealing with an epidemic of methamphetamine use. Could this be a factor in the growing tension in the region and offer at least a partial explanation for the lack of willingness to attempt negotiated resolutions?

Consider a few facts:

  • Meth releases a surge of dopamine, causing an intense rush of pleasure or prolonged sense of euphoria.
  • Over time, meth destroys dopamine receptors, making it impossible to feel pleasure.
  • Although these pleasure centers can heal over time, research suggests that damage to users’ cognitive abilities may be permanent.
  • Chronic abuse can lead to psychotic behavior, including paranoia, insomnia, anxiety, extreme aggression, delusions and hallucinations, and even death.

A potent stimulant popular both with jihadist fighters and soldiers in the Syrian army was recently seized in the West Bank district of Samaria. Police said that while checking a Palestinian returning from Jordan by way of the Allenby border crossing, they found hashish as well as thousands of pills of Captagon.

Captagon is the brand name for a stimulant with the active ingredient fenethylline, a chemical linkage of amphetamine and theophylline. The drug was outlawed in most of the west by the mid-80s but remains extremely popular in the Arab world, especially in Syria, where much of it is manufactured. Bootleg and generic copies are quite common also. Occasionally, the extremists exhibit reckless if not crazy behavior, and such incidents indicate possible drug use. With even moderate use, changes in brain chemistry can lead to disturbing behavior. Heavy, chronic usage can also prompt psychotic behavior, such as paranoia, aggression, hallucinations and delusions.

One Kurdish leader told reporters:

“When we capture them, we sometimes find syringes in their bags or “capsules” or “vials” in their mouths.”

Drug use and addiction is so prevalent in Iran that it is the second highest cause of death in the country after traffic accidents, a senior official from the Iran Drug Control Headquarters said in early November, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency. Seizures of methamphetamine soared 128 percent between 2008 and 2012, topping all other countries in the region, according to figures compiled by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Last year alone, the government of Iran confiscated 3.6 tons of shishe.

Shishe means “glass” in Farsi, a reference to the appearance of the drug in some of its purest forms. In less than a decade, methamphetamine use has skyrocketed in Iran to the point where now about 345,000 Iranians are considered addicts, according to official statistics. Shishe addicts in Iran are mostly urban, middle class and young, and include a large number of women, too. One of the main reasons why shishe use has spread quickly is a lack of information about the drug, which has led casual users to believe, erroneously, that it is harmless and not addictive.

Drug addiction needs to be recognized as a dangerous problem that can be prevented and successfully treated. The Middle East is facing an uncertain future on many levels. It is difficult to treat drug abuse in a war setting, but substance abuse should be considered a factor in how negotiations are carried out.

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