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Uzbekistan Downplays Drug Problem

Government accused of underestimating number of heroin users and failing to support treatment programmes.
By Bakhtiyor Rasulov
Tashkent has been accused of underplaying the extent of Uzbekistan’s drug problem by acknowledging only registered addicts in official statistics and not investing sufficiently in treatment programmes.



According to the official statistics. there are 50,000 registered drug users in Uzbekistan, a figure cited recently by deputy interior minister Abdukarim Shodiev at the launch of a European Union-funded United Nations project to create the first drug-free zone at a prison in the city of Chirchik, near the capital Tashkent.



But the UN Agency for Drugs and Crime, UNODC, estimates that the total number of addicts in Uzbekistan, with a population of 27 million, is much higher than officials admit, and may be over 150,000.



Other experts agree that the official figures do not reflect the true scale of the problem.



“In Tashkent alone, we are working with 10,000 drug users,” said Bahodir Atamirzoev, who works for the World Vision’s Uzbekistan office, which distributes free disposable syringes and medicines to addicts. “It’s obvious the official statistics are very much underestimated.”



Uzbekistan lies on the transit route for Afghan heroin travelling via Central Asia to Russia and other European markets. Since the United States-led coalition ousted the Taleban government in late 2001, opium production in Afghanistan has boomed.



Analysts believe the under-reporting reflects the Uzbek authorities’ reluctance to get to grips with addiction, mainly involving heroin and other opiates such as morphine, and a desire to present a positive image of the country to the outside world.



Even doctors working for state institutions agree that official data do not capture the real numbers involved.



“The majority of drug users do not register,” said Oleg Mustafin, a leading drug treatment specialist in Tashkent who works at the state drugs dispensary. “Even in Tashkent, the figures are a third of the true number.”



As Gulom Burihojaev, a senior doctor at the National Narcology Centre in Tashkent, explained, “The number of drug addicts in the country is calculated from the number of people who are registered. When it comes to the unregistered ones, international practice is to multiply by a factor of five. So the number of unregistered drug addicts is five times that of those who are registered.”



Young people turn to drugs for a variety of reasons, experts say, including widespread poverty and unemployment.



Alisher, a 34-year-old from Tashkent attending on a treatment course at the national drug treatment centre, said, “Many of the young people who were using drugs alongside me admitted it was their way of getting away from reality and forgetting about their problems.”



Another important factor driving up the number of users is that on a transit route like Uzbekistan, illegal narcotics are easy to get hold.



“You can buy one fix for around 15 [US] dollars,” said Atamirzaev. “Availability and ease of access are becoming the principal factors in the growth of drug dependancy.”



Experts contend that the Uzbek authorities are reluctant to acknowledge the full extent of the problem because this would reveal the ineffectiveness of government measures to tackle drug use.



A three-year-state anti-drugs programme adopted in 2006 envisaged a 30 per cent reduction in the number of addicts. However, according to an UNDOC expert who wished to remain anonymous, lack of funding and support has led to delays.



Under the programme, a large drug treatment centre was supposed to have been built by the beginning of 2010, but it is still some way off completion.



Another problem, the UN expert said, was the lack of support for replacement therapy, where addicts are supplied with opiates with fewer side-effects than heroin, in the hope their health will improve and they can resume normal life. The most commonly used substitute is methadone, a synthetic opiate with less severe withdrawal symptoms.



In June, the Uzbek health ministry decided to end replacement therapy, despite protests from drug treatment specialists, UN representatives, and addicts and their families.



The UNODC expert blamed resistance at the health ministry.



“Officials believe that giving users drugs, albeit soft ones… is tantamount to encouraging them,” he said. “The formal reason given for closing the project is that it doesn’t fit with the Uzbek psyche. This is hardly going to help bring down the number of addicts.”



Experts also point to the inconsistency of current legislation, specifically a law on drugs.



“The law is deficient as it does not define what a drug addict is – a criminal or a sick person,” said Mustafin. “One article states that a drug user is a person in need of treatment, whereas another says that a person who uses drugs is a criminal.”



Ozoda Tangrieva from Tashkent, whose son is an addict undergoing treatment at a state-run centre, has witnessed the numerous problems he has faced.



“First, there’s discrimination everywhere, starting from rank-and-file [police] inspectors who may at any moment demand a bribe in exchange for not divulging your addiction, to more serious discrimination when people apply for jobs or hospital treatment,” she said.



Tangrieva said her family was feeling the strain of paying for treatment.



“As of this year, they began charging for treatment even at the state-run centres. I’ve had to pay 150,000 Uzbek soms [around 80 dollars] for the month that my son has been here so far,” she said.



Another UNODC representative, who asked to remain anonymous, said the Uzbek government tended to highlight the country’s drug problems when it was seeking international funding, and play it down at other times.



“The Uzbek authorities… cite drug use as a problem because of the proximity to Afghanistan, but they reduce the figures to demonstrate how effectively the problem is being solved, largely thanks to the government’s efforts,” he said.



“This leads to a distorted view of the real situation, and makes addressing the problem difficult both for drug treatment specialists, who are effectively forced to work in secret, and for representatives of international organisations like ours. It becomes dangerous to highlight the real extent of the problem, as this clashes with the interests of the state.”



Bakhtior Rasulov is a pseudonym for a journalist in Uzbekistan.

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