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Azerbaijan's Hidden Drug Problem

Heroin users need long-term treatment – and that requires funding from a government that seems unaware of scale of addiction.
By Aytan Farhadova
  • Recovering addicts meet in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Photo: IWPR)
    Recovering addicts meet in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Photo: IWPR)

Doctors say the Azerbaijani government is badly underestimating the number of drug users in the country, and failing to provide the resources needed to turn the tide.

The main drug problem is heroin from Afghanistan. One of the smuggling routes to Russia and other European states passes through Azerbaijan, and as is typical in a “transit country”, easy availability has boosted local addiction rates.

“The addiction problem began assuming massive proportions after the collapse of the Soviet Union,” according to Araz Aliquliyev, formerly the country’s chief narcotics doctor and now part the State Anti-Drugs Commission. “Drug addiction became widespread with independence, when border controls became less rigorous.”

Deputy Prime Minister Ali Hasanov, who heads the state commission tasked with fighting the drugs trade, has given statistics indicating the country has just 25,000 users of illegal narcotics for a population of at least eight million.

But medical experts say the real numbers are likely to be much higher.

“The official statistics include only those who have undergone treatment at drug centres, plus those sent for compulsory recovery treatment. But there are many users who don’t undergo any treatment, or who are treated unofficially,” Afat Mammadova, a departmental head at the national drugs clinic, the Republican Narcological Dispensary.

“Standard practice internationally is that to obtain a picture of drug addiction that’s close to reality, you need to multiply the official figure by ten. Thus, we can say that Azerbaijan has around 250,000 drug users.”

Official figures do not distinguish between the various illegal substances, but experts point to a worrying spread in the use of heroin, particularly among young people.

Ludmila Jafarova, the chief narcotics doctor in the capital Baku, described how “a decade ago, heroin was used by the over-40s, but now it’s come down to 18 and 20 year-olds…. Heroin was once used by well-off people, but now prices have fallen so much that drugs are accessible to everyone.”

Dr Jafarova said she was seeing ever younger addicts. “In recent times, parents have begun bringing in schoolchildren aged 13 or 14 who have tried marijuana more than once,” she said.

She said there were few rehab facilities and no long-term treatment available for addicts in Azerbaijan. They are currently offered 21 days of detoxification, but Jafara said what was really needed was a six-month programme of psychological support, which could ensure a success rate of over 50 per cent.

Arif, who is addicted to heroin, described how he suffered relapses after short-term courses of treatment.

“I had treatment twice at the Republican Narcological Dispensary, paying 1,000 [US] dollars for each 21-day course. But in each case, it wasn’t a month before I was back on drugs, because when your body stops demanding drugs, your brain still does,” he said. “You need either massive willpower or else support from outside in order to give up for good. Drug addicts like me rarely have either.”

Medical experts say weaning people off heroin takes time, and Dr Jafarova would like the government to set up a new rehab centre to help individuals achieve longer-term stability.

“It isn’t enough just to cleanse the organism of narcotics. The basis of rehabilitation is psychological support, so as to return these people to an active working life. Family psychotherapy is also important,” she said.

Mamadova said that if government support was forthcoming, it would not take long to train the psychiatrists and other specialists needed to staff drug rehabilitation centres.

The health ministry has made it clear it has no plans to build a rehab unit of this kind. Aliquliyev said the government simply could not afford to cover the costs of such a centre or the treatment it would provide.

“Treating addiction costs 700 or 800 dollars a month internationally, and the whole course of treatment takes about two years. So we’re talking about more than 16,000 dollars,” he said. “At the moment, we simply lack the funds to create a rehabilitation centre [which entails] not just putting up a building but also increasing staff numbers and improving their qualifications.”

Aytan Farhadova is a correspondent from the Web site

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