Originally published in NOW
It’s past 1 am on a chilly night in Tripoli. Ali, a bulky man in his 30s with a well-groomed beard, shaved above his upper lip in the Salafist style, sits on a bench beneath the apartment building of a prominent Tripolitan politician, where he works as a night watchman.
“I used to take pills [for fun] but I stopped. Now I take them for my medical condition,” he says. Ali has anger issues that get him into fights.
Other people, he says, mix the pills with alcohol. “One or one and a half with some alcohol is all it takes to mess you up. Five or six will make you fall down or lose consciousness.”
Drug use is a serious problem in the Tripoli neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh, an impoverished area that has seen regular fighting with the neighboring Jabal Mohsen for years. While harder drugs tend to be out of budget considering the high levels of poverty in the area, multiple sources interviewed by NOW said that pills have become the drug of choice.
“Drugs are everywhere. [Users] don’t have to hide them,” said Khaled Naaman, an illiterate vegetable vendor and retired fighter.
The most commonly-used pill according to multiple sources in Tabbaneh is Benzhexol (generic name trihexyphenidyl), a drug often used to treat Parkinson’s disease. However, if taken in large quantities, the drug causes users to feel a state of euphoria. But there are also negative side effects.
Ali says one guy he knows has scars all over his body from cutting himself. “They don’t feel the pain and they have no control over their body.” Despite Ali’s claim that he no longer takes pills for recreational purposes, a local who knows him says otherwise. The man said Ali told him about an incident where, on pills and unaware of his state, Ali began shooting at a local police officer directing traffic.
A local in his early 20s named Tarek admitted to consuming the drug with whiskey on a regular basis. He says he sees drug-users talking to themselves or fighting. “[Some residents] even made an action movie about how pills give you super powers,” he said.
All sources interviewed told NOW that poverty, a lack of available work, and government ineptitude contributed to widespread drug abuse. A report to be released at the end of February by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia gives telling statistics on the area. According to the report, Tabbaneh’s average household income is the lowest in the country, with 76 percent of the population living in extreme poverty, earning less than 750,000 LL ($500) per month. 41 percent of Tabbaneh’s households make less than 500,000 LL per month. Only one percent of the population has a university-level education.
Residents say the mass influx of Syrian refugees has contributed to an already difficult living situation.
Ali’s animosity towards his new neighbors is clear. He says he used to make $40 a day as an electrician. Now he makes less than $10 a day because there are refugees willing to do his work for less money. He seethes as he talks about getting kicked out of his house because a family of Syrian refugees offered to pay his landlord more rent money per month. “I have five children and a wife that I can no longer support,” he said.
With a large part of the population living in such overwhelming poverty, cheap pills offer an easier escape than more expensive designer drugs. Pills cost around 4,000 LL each, say residents. They are available in packages from pharmacies, sometimes with prescriptions and sometimes without.
Abdul Razak, a 28-year-old who works at a shop on the outer rim of the Gold Souk, outside Tabbaneh, said that some pharmacists report abusers to the police, sometimes landing the buyer in jail for three months.
“If you are sick you can get a prescription and go to three different pharmacies. You keep one package and sell the other two,” said Razak.
Sources say that drug use goes deeper than pharmacies. Sheikh Jamel Sedik, a local imam and shop owner in the heart of the Gold Souk, told NOW that “there is a drug mafia that is importing and helping expand usage.” Sedik said that Lebanese security forces were involved but refused to elaborate. Other residents cited cases, though not necessarily involving drugs, whereby people who worked with intelligence services or acted as informants would get free reign to violate Lebanese law.
Former Tripoli MP Misbah al-Ahdab confirmed that many people involved in distributing drugs are protected by security agencies.
Yet while drug use is certainly pervasive, residents claim it has decreased in recent years. Multiple residents claimed that drug use is in decline, not due to government measures, but due to a surge in the practice of Islamist ideology.
Wissam, a fighter in his 40s who also works as a vendor selling Islamic accoutrements, spoke to NOW while a screen in the background displayed images of erstwhile leader of al-Qaeda Osama bin Laden.
Wissam said that ten to 15 years ago, dealers and users were more prevalent. Now that more people are attending mosque and living piously, less are abusing drugs. Regardless of the attempts of the religious community to prevent drug addiction, Wissam believes a lot more needs to be done.
“We try to lead them to a better path but there’s not much we can do without the government. We aren’t specialists,” he said. Further, Wissam believes that Islamists are being targeted by the government. “Anyone with a beard or embracing Islam doesn’t face trial and goes to jail and you can’t say a word,” he said.
Islam and its proponents may have aided some residents in giving up drug abuse, but the problem remains prevalent in Tabbaneh with no comprehensive solutions in sight. Naaman, the vegetable vendor, said the government should “tear it all down and rebuild”.
“The devil took a villa here,” said Naaman, likening his neighborhood to hell. “It was closer to his job.”