Turkmenistan's Rising Drugs Crisis

Opium and heroin becoming commonplace as authorities fail to tackle spiralling problem.

Turkmenistan's Rising Drugs Crisis

Opium and heroin becoming commonplace as authorities fail to tackle spiralling problem.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

Maral, a teenage carpet-weaver in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat, can remember exactly when her life changed forever.

It was another long, back-breaking day of weaving and sewing side by side with her sister, each working flat-out to make the intricate products that provide their family with an income. After a six-hour stint at the loom, Maral’s eyes were stinging with sweat and fatigue, her hands were raw, and she was on the brink of collapse.

"So my dad added some opium to our tea," she told IWPR. "The energy flowed into us and we didn't get tired so quickly. Soon were doing a full carpet – a month's work – in only two weeks. But then a larger dose would be needed for the same effect. And then a still larger one. That’s how I became a drug addict."

Maral and her sister are victims in Turkmenistan's spiralling drugs problem – a situation the authorities seem unwilling to face, and one which many claim is being exacerbated by corrupt officials turning a blind eye.

It is a relatively new epidemic, as narcotics were not so commonly used when the country was still part of the Soviet Union. However, independence in 1991 brought with it mass unemployment and poverty, with many associated problems – drug addiction, prostitution and crime.

Analysts believe Turkmenistan's official statistics - which admit that one in ten of the population is using narcotics - understate the true extent of the problem. A national narcotics agency has made few inroads on the problem.

“Since independence, Turkmenistan has taken the path of drug addiction rather than democracy,” a Turkmen politician, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IWPR. "Drugs are sold everywhere in Turkmenistan, with heroin the most popular, and young people are being actively drawn into the trade. If the authorities do not take serious measures to prevent this, their inaction will seen as official policy.”

The United Nations Office on Drug Control and Crime Prevention believes that Turkmenistan, like other Central Asian countries, has a growing addiction problem based on the transit of drugs trafficked out of Afghanistan. Increasingly, the traffickers bring in processed heroin rather than raw opium.

Endemic poverty means there is a steady supply of people desperate enough to traffic or sell drugs locally.

Unofficial estimates suggest that as many as 20,000 people in Ashgabat alone are involved in the drugs trade. Observers say that it is now possible to buy drugs in markets, discos, schools and universities - and that the peddlers are becoming less secretive about it.

“I condemn drug addicts and try to avoid contact with them, but on the other hand I do feel pity for them,” said university student Dovran. "I've yet to reach my 20th birthday, but already half of my classmates and neighbours - the friends I grew up with - are seasoned drug addicts, some of them already serving jail terms for theft.

Dovran told how the business works, and alleged that police are complicit in the trade, "Every district has its own drug baron who sells from home, exchanging drug hits for expensive items stolen by his addicted customers.

“The police know full well who the dealers are, yet they do nothing. They'd rather arrest ordinary addicts to make up the statistics. After all, the drugs trade is very profitable, and the policemen have their own stake in it."

The problem of drug addiction is even more acute in rural areas, where living standards and education levels are lower than in the towns. The problem of drug dependency is exacerbated by local traditions, in which marijuana and opium were used as narcotics and folk remedies.

Chary-aga is more than 80 and is now watching his grandchildren grow up. He told IWPR, “In our village there is not a single family where heroin, opium or marijuana is not used.

“Most often the drug addicts in a given family are the husband and the son. The mother sells drugs during the day, and in the evening uses the money she earns to buy a dose for her men.

"I can’t watch it without feeling pain. This is our future, it’s what we strove for and worked so many years for. I don’t want to live in such a world!”

At weddings, it has become common for a special room to be set aside so that male guests can be treated to drugs to put them in a party mood.

For those who reject the drug culture, there are painful choices. One father told IWPR, “My girl is 25 years old, and Turkmen custom dictates I should have had her married off long ago.

"But I found that all the potential grooms sent by matchmakers were drug addicts. I didn’t raise my daughter to wish such 'happiness' on her. She’s better off remaining unmarried and staying with her family."

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