Addiction rife among Syrian victims of war

Addiction rife among Syrian victims of war
Feature: Dispossessed, desperate and brutalised, an increasing number of Syrians - civilians, refugees, fighters and soldiers - depend on illicit drugs to get by.
4 min read
17 August, 2015
Many Syrians are turning to drugs and alcohol to cope with their lives [Getty]

One of the many unfortunate consequences of the displacement and suffering that accompanies war is that vulnerable populations come to depend on drugs and alcohol to cope. The war in Syria is no exception.

Drug addiction is not a new phenomenon, but it has recently increased massively in Syria as a result of the absence of controls, deterrents and treatment. And while some argue that addiction is a normal side-effect of war, others believe quick action needs to be taken to educate people and provide addicts with medical and psychological support to curb the growing trend.

The popularity of substances differs from one area to another and the rate of use varies depending on a number of social factors. 

"The number of people visiting the pharmacy for drugs has significantly increased," Omar Abdul Karim, a Syrian pharmacist, told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

"Men, women, refugees, fighters, educated people and illiterate people all come for the same thing. Users are from all segments of society."

It's easier for addicts to consume pills than alcohol.
- Syrian pharmacist.

Abdul Karim added: "I think the most popular forms of drugs in Syria are pills, because we live in a conservative environment where it's easier for addicts to consume pills than alcohol, for example. Addicts can claim they are taking medicine and no one will object. Some fighters in the opposition also take pills, as they forbid alcohol."

Clinical psychologist Ayah Mhanna said that addiction could be found across all segments of society.

"Falling into addiction has more to do with one's personality than religion, race, gender or social background," she said.

"Addicts are psychologically unable to deal with the different pressures they are subjected to and cannot find an alternate release," she said.

Some 60 percent of her cases suffer from psychological issues such as depression, she said.

It is common knowledge among Syrians that many fighters on both sides of the conflict have developed an addiction to one substance or another. 

"Most regime soldiers are addicted to alcohol," said Moaz, a Latakia resident. "They come to the city's market to sell stolen goods and buy large quantities of alcoholic drinks."


Ammar, a Syrian refugee who lives with a group of friends in the Turkish city of Gaziantep and works for a relief organisation, describes his life as "divided".

He spends his days in direct contact with the hardships of Syrian refugees and spends his nights drinking and smoking cannabis with his friends. This has been Ammar's daily routine for the past year and a half. However, he said he does not feel it is a cause for concern.

"No Syrian can change what's happening around them. Chaos and calamities are everywhere. The circumstances are not normal for us to deal with them as such," Ammar said. "The least we deserve in these circumstances is to smoke some cannabis."

Mohammad, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon, made a similar point: "Smoking cannabis makes me patient in dealing with the disasters affecting me and my family. It doesn't cause addiction so why not use it?"

Mohammad's view is disputed by scientists. While the substance does not cause physical dependence, it does cause a psychological dependence, said pharmacist Abdul Hadi Qana. It also affects brain development, memory and concentration.

Reports suggest 90 percent of drug addicts are misinformed about the true nature and effects of the substances they use.

Addicts are psychologically unable to deal with the pressures they are subjected to and cannot find a release.
- Clinical psychologist


Tramadol is perhaps the most commonly used drug in Syria. Medically used for pain relief, especially after surgical procedures, many patients have gone on to develop an addiction. Others use addictive narcotic-like drugs to self-medicate and many become dependent.

However, because it is a medicinal, rather than recreational, drug, many people do not realise the harmful effects it could have.

Amal, a 37-year-old mother of three was wounded in her leg and spine by shrapnel, and was forced to undergo a number of surgeries. She was prescribed a limited course of tramadol to deal with her severe pain.

She did not, however, adhere closely to her doctor's instructions.

"My injury had a really negative impact on my psychological state. I became depressed and began causing trouble at home. After a while taking the drug I noticed I was in a better mood. I didn't realize that was one of the drug's side effects, but when I did I increased the dosage," Amal said.

She convinced her doctor she was still suffering from pain to get more drugs - but on her second attempt Amal's doctor discovered what she was doing and warned her that her body was becoming dependent on the substance.

Amal's husband also started using the drug, which, according to her, improved their relationship.

She came to the decision that they needed to give up the drug, but has found it hard.

"I felt our family was falling apart so I decided to quit," said Amal. "I convinced my husband to quit together for our children. I went through the hardest moments of my life and was suffering from severe withdrawal, but I'm better now. However, my husband has suffered far more and every time he quits he starts using again."

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.