By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Friday, January 15, 2010
BEIRUT: Maher (not his real name) had been arrested more than 32 times and was constantly in and out of prison on drug charges before finally receiving help for his addiction problems.
“I started using [drugs] in 1985 after being influenced by some friends,” he said. “I didn’t know about the dangers.” What started as casual use of hashish quickly turned into an addiction to heroin.
Although the 1998 narcotics law stipulates that those with drug addictions are to be considered to be suffering from an illness, and not criminals, this provision is rarely upheld. The law says people like Maher should be sent to government-run rehabilitation clinics, but because of the dearth of such facilities, they usually end up in prison.
Incarceration is a lonely place for those battling addiction. Drugs are widely available and there are no provisions for those experiencing withdrawal. “In jail I can honestly tell you I wished I was dead,” Maher said. “If you’re a drug addict, your calls for help fall on deaf ears. I wasn’t offered any treatment.”
During one spell behind bars, Maher said he was visited by a psychologist once a week but it didn’t help much. “Prison breaks your spirit. Even if your body is drug free, your problems don’t disappear.”
On top of run-ins with the law, those with addiction problems in Lebanon also have to contend with considerable social stigma. Recognizing this, addiction rehabilitation organization Skoun on Thursday organized a workshop with religious figures to try to communicate that shunning drug addicts was more damaging to society than helping them.
Souha Bawab, a psychologist in Skoun’s prevention department, said the targeting of religious figures was important because they helped shape popular opinion in Lebanon. “We are trying to decrease the stigma surrounding addiction, so that people with addiction problems don’t hesitate as much to seek healthcare services, because this is what the stigma is doing,” she said. “At the end of the day, people with addiction problems are staying stuck in their addiction, which increases their suffering, the suffering of their families and the suffering of the entire community that they belong to.”
Lana Captan Ghandour, project manager of the peace building project at the United Nations Development Program, which is funding the project, said the workshop comes amid growing awareness of drug and other addictions among the general population. “The problem with drug addiction in Lebanon is escalating,” Ghandour said. A few years ago, “people with family members who had drug addictions wouldn’t want the community to know about it … Now there is a movement … to combat the challenges of drug addiction. Now people want to talk about it because they are being touched by it.”
Religious figures could play an important role in this growing dialogue through spreading messages in their sermons “to better deal with drug addicts rather than isolating them,” Ghandour added. Statistics about drug use in Lebanon are scarce, but anecdotal evidence suggests widespread availability and consumption. Skoun has said field workers estimate the number of drug abusers to be between 10,000 to 15,000 people, although it is likely an underestimation. Relatively cheap prices – heroin costs around $20 per gram and cocaine about $100 per gram – means that almost anyone can buy something.
“Many of my friends at university smoked hashish,” Maroun [not his real name], a graduate of the Lebanese University, said. “Now I know that four of them take heroin and most of the others are always using [ecstasy] pills or cocaine at the weekend.”
Those working with addicts say drug use is an issue that has long been neglected by the authorities. While those with addictions in Lebanon face several difficulties, Maher is proof that it can be overcome with support. “I am very happy now,” he said. “I’m actually working and smiling. There was a time when I couldn’t even smile but things are looking up today.” He added: “Few people have compassion for drug addicts but thanks to non-governmental organizations, things are beginning to change.”