Pubdate: Mon, 11 Feb 2002
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 2002 San Jose Mercury News
Author: Elaine Sciolino, New York Times


JIDDA, Saudi Arabia - The sword falls swiftly on a drug dealer's neck in 
the kingdom of the Sauds.

There is nothing secret or ambiguous about the policy. Even before visitors 
land on Saudi soil, entry forms state in red letters in English and Arabic 
that trafficking in drugs is punished by death. Thirty-five convicted drug 
traffickers were executed in 2000, beheaded in public squares.

The government says the harsh punishment and the kingdom's relative 
isolation from drug sources make drug addiction less severe than in 
countries like Iran or Pakistan.

But it is a serious enough problem that the rulers have begun -- albeit on 
a small scale -- to deal with it in a very un-Saudi way: openly. And while 
the government treats drug trafficking as criminal activity, it has begun 
to regard drug, alcohol and nicotine dependence as treatable illnesses.

`We are very concerned'

One reason it has become a problem is that although an estimated 65 percent 
of Saudi Arabia's population is under the age of 25, this is a place that 
bans movie theaters, concert halls, discotheques and dating. Sports 
activities, particularly for women, are limited. Without a choice of 
healthy diversions for young people, drugs have increasingly become a 
source of entertainment and escape.

``We don't think that the drug problem in our country can be described as a 
phenomenon,'' said Dr. Suhail al-Banna, director of Al-Amal Hospital in 
Jidda. ``But whatever you call it, we are very concerned about it and are 
dealing with it.''

The government provides no statistics on drug consumption, interdiction and 
trafficking, but according to the U.S. State Department's annual global 
drug report, anecdotal evidence ``suggests that Saudi Arabia's relatively 
affluent population, large numbers of unemployed youth, and the high profit 
margins on narcotics smuggled to Saudi Arabia make the country an 
attractive target for drug traffickers and dealers.''

Al-Amal, whose name means ``hope,'' is one of four drug treatment centers 
in a country of 21 million people, about 15 million of them Saudis. 
Patients are offered group therapy, dental treatment, X-rays, sonograms, 
massages, physical therapy and biofeedback.

They can swim, play pool and pingpong, read in the library, work out in the 
fitness center and walk in the garden, where a caged roof prevents escape.

During detoxification, each patient is given a private room and bath, a 
prayer rug and a copy of the Koran. Like all observant Muslim men, patients 
pray five times a day.

Art illustrates attitudes

Three paintings by an ex-addict that hang in a craft room illustrate the 
Saudi approach to the problem: Drugs lead to crime, which leads to death.

In the first painting, a young man is seen experimenting with cigarettes, a 
water pipe, alcohol, sleeping pills, hashish and heroin.

``Don't kill yourself, because God is merciful,'' the artist wrote. ``But 
whoever does these things is sinning and bears the consequences.''

In the second painting, drugs and alcohol have driven the addict to 
adultery, rape and murder. In the final painting, the addict is 
blindfolded, his hands tied behind his back, his body covered in blood.

Above him hangs a large curved sword. ``We have not killed you,'' the 
artist wrote. ``You have killed yourself.''

In terms of treatment, the hospital confronts the problem head on.

A psychodrama program, for example, simulates the drug environment. The 
floor of the treatment room is covered with the paraphernalia and 
accouterments of dependence: an empty bottle of Scotch, hypodermic needles, 
cigarette butts, plastic takeout containers, a hashish pipe, a magazine 
with photographs of women and a deck of cards.

``We show how low an addict can get,'' said a Sudanese 
psychologist-in-training. ``We try to stimulate the craving, which gets 
greater and greater, and then we deal with the anxiety that results. We 
reduce the craving gradually with relaxation techniques similar to 
biofeedback. We use all international standards.''

Women often ignored

The hospital serves more than 200 male Saudi patients. Expatriates are 
jailed and then deported. There is no drug facility for women. ``Females 
don't usually have such problems,'' said Dr. Ossama T. Osman, the 
hospital's medical director, who studied medicine in Illinois and spent 
three years at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland.

Not true, said a female psychiatrist who works at a mental hospital in the 

``There are many women with alcohol and drug dependencies,'' she said. 
``And women, especially women who are confined to the home, suffer from 
depression, and often self-medicate. They come to us, but there's not much 
we can do for them. We can keep them for a day or two and then they leave. 
It's not something this society wants to face.''

Drugs are smuggled into the country either by air or sea by pilgrims going 
to Mecca or by other travelers, who sometimes use children as carriers. 
Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Turkey are the main sources. Heroin and 
hashish are the most commonly used drugs, but cocaine is available and some 
young people sniff acetone, glue and paint. Alcohol is banned, but 
available, and most prescription drugs, including sleeping pills, 
amphetamines and anti-depressants, can be bought over the counter without 
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