Tuesday, August 1

Refugee camps help fuel Middle East's illicit synthetic drugs epidemic among Arab youth

This is an eye-opening investigative report from a contributor at Al-Masdar News (AMN), which usually focuses on war reportage. 

Exclusive: Cheap drug sweeps across Arab countries, with gruesome outcomes
By Beatriz Yubero
July 31, 2017

“It is from Aqaba and Ma’an, from where the drug is distributed. The tribes involved in this business lead the Salafist movement and organized crime all at once. This is a time bomb.”

(AMMAN, JORDAN) Joker is the latest and most fashionable drug in the Middle East. Joker is a mixture of fertilizers, chemicals, pesticides, oil, animal hormones among other components. Its consumption has become the nightmare for the Jordanian anti-narcotics agency (PSD) It made its first appearance in the early 2000s, however, it was not until a year ago that it burst into the illegal drug market. Since then, it has gained popularity, especially among the youth.

According to PSD sources, after the Jordanian anti-narcotics agency succeeded in eliminating 95 percent of the country’s marijuana plantations the joker took over the drug market. “Getting joker is easier than going to the supermarket”, says Yusef, a barber who has lived and run his business for decades in the al-Wehdat refugee camp in eastern Amman.

According to a study by the Jordanian Economic and Social Council, the price of narcotics in the country is among the lowest in the world. In fact, a joker bag costs around 3 Jordanian dinars, (about 4 dollars) while a pill of captagon, has a derisory price of 0.35 Jordanian dinars (0.50 dollars). It is precisely the accessibility to this type of substances that is causing havoc in some of the poorer areas of the Jordanian Kingdom while also becoming the access corridor of the new drug towards the Gulf countries. 

“People are afraid, they do not want to enter the refugee camp. Some neighbours prefer to rent their own homes and move to other areas because of the problems the drug is causing and because businesses are being affected. It has damaged our image.”

Accessibility to these types of substances is wreaking havoc in some of the poorest areas of the kingdom. This substance, also known as Spice, Dream and Diesel, produces the same effects as common narcotics but the health risks are multiplied. Kidney and liver failure, mental disruptions, cerebrovascular failures, convulsions, loss of concentration and abstraction of reality, psychosis, hallucinations and panic attacks are just some of their effects. It has the highest mortality rate among all the narcotic substances sold in the Hashemite Kingdom.

“The old dealers are the ones who manufacture the joker. They know how to do it and how to sell it, but they do not consume it”, says Yusef.

So why is it so popular? Among young people, especially university students, the idea that the joker works as a substitute for tobacco and 100% natural was promoted. The mafias say it improves memory and helps to socialize. The reality is that it is manufactured in clandestine laboratories throughout the country and is completely synthetic. 

“It is very easy to play joker, most of the traffickers do it here, in the refugee camps – which are already part of the structure of the big cities. Everyone knows how to make joker”.

A few kilometres from Al Wehdat, in Sahhab, a suburb south of Amman, this type of substance is even more popular. The neighbourhood is one of the favorite destinations for the sale and distribution of drugs. In this district, dominated by three tribes, it sells up to 30% of all the drug of individual sale of Jordan. ...

"Most traffickers do their business in the cafes they control and in the smoke-shops. Everyone who uses drugs does it here and everybody knows each other, so they avoid informers”, says Mohammed, owner of a traditional pastry shop in the neighbourhood. “The main reason for being a drug dealer is that there are a lot of people in the refugee camps and because there is no job, many are looking for an alternative. They start using drugs and then go on to traffic. Most of them do not have a job,” says Yusef.

According to PSD sources, the consumption of narcotic substances shot up 25% between 2015 and 2016, coinciding with the arrival of Syrian refugees to Jordan. Drugs have become a way to deal with the harsh living conditions offered by the Middle East. 

“Life here, in the fields, is very hard and drugs have become an escape route for young people,” says Yusef. A few meters away an old man, dressed in a traditional kufiyah, listens to the conversation and adds: “Teenagers consume it. They need something to have fun and believe they are men”.

Last February, police officers seized up to 133,000 narcotic pills and 17 kilos of hashish, one of the largest anti-narcotic operations in the past year. After battling marijuana and caption, the rapists’ drug and whose consumption is widespread in the region, the Jordanian anti-drug department has opened a battle against joker and other synthetic drugs.

Safuan -- not his real name -- is the youngest son of a prominent Sheikh, a religious leader. From his childhood he and his siblings have been the model for their community, but that has not stopped drugs from entering his family.


Up to three times a week, police and army sweep through major drug outlets and distribution centres; however, “although police do their jobs, they cannot control the flow of substances. There are too many people and tribes involved.”

The UN has warned that since the war in Syria began the lack of security has led to an increase in organized crime and drug trafficking in the Middle East.

Jordan, the region’s last peace oasis, has become a transit zone for illegal substances into the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia.

“It is from Aqaba and Ma’an, from where the drug is distributed,” says Safuan. “The tribes involved in this business lead the Salafist movement and organized crime all at once. This is a time bomb”.



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