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Meth use spikes in Turkey, a transit country turned buyer’s market
Having ravaged the United States for decades, methamphetamine is now among the most widely-used drugs in Turkey, a long-time transit country for drugs heading to Europe that is quickly becoming a point of consumption.
Meth, a low-cost and highly-addictive stimulant, has become the nation’s drug of choice after marijuana, according to police surveys conducted earlier this year based on the testimony of people being tried on narcotics charges.
The anecdotal street evidence is backed by data from a recent Interior Ministry report indicating the amount of meth seized by Turkish authorities nearly quadrupled from 2020 to 2022, from 4,162 to 16,210 tons.
The same report showed meth users represented the largest group of addicted people seeking rehabilitation at Turkish hospitals in 2022, accounting for 37.8 percent of such patients – up from 25.6 percent the previous year – and narrowly edging out heroin.
A separate 2022 report analyzing urban wastewater for drug traces ranked İstanbul 10th and Adana 16th for highest meth presence among 106 major European cities that were assessed by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA).
“Methamphetamine is a narcotic substance that has been on the rise all over the world since 2009,” Cengiz Erdinç, journalist and author of the book Overdose Türkiye told Turkey recap, adding the drug started to gain local prominence in 2013, “but the year the number of incidents and suspects exploded was 2016.”
An unprecedented four tons of the meth was seized during raids at two parties last year, Erdinç noted, citing news reports, and in 2021 authorities logged upwards of 57,000 meth-related incidents, which amounted to 80,000 arrests, a quarter of which were smugglers.
The most recent official data shows the trend spiking in 2022, with 77,756 meth-related incidents resulting in 101,193 arrests.
Meth, meanwhile, is a relatively cheap, long-lasting upper that prevents feelings of fatigue and can appeal to workers in difficult or menial jobs with long shifts and little pay. The surge in local meth use comes as Turkey undergoes an extended economic crisis and high unemployment.
Turkey has a complex history with narcotics. In the early years of the republic, three factories produced heroin, a massive revenue source for the young nation’s fledging economy until the early 1930s.
Afterwards, more than half the world's legal opium was produced in Turkey through the 1960s. There’s even a province called opium (Afyon), which was later lengthened to Afyonkarahisar by the government in 2004, ostensibly to shed the association with the drug.
“It's been a long time since Turkey was a major producer of illicit heroin,” said Ryan Gingeras, a historian, professor at California’s Naval Postgraduate School and author of the book Heroin, Organized Crime and the Making of Modern Turkey.
Gingeras noted Turkey has endured more as a transit point and remains one for a variety of different narcotics but nailing down the extent or evolution of drug use within the Turkish border in recent years “is a bit difficult."
“To tell you the truth, I've not seen a lot of in-depth studies on recent trends but anecdotally there's some reporting out there that drug use is more of a problem now among young people than the past,” Gingeras told Turkey recap.
While some workers at Turkish heroin factories became addicted to the substance in the past, Turkey has never experienced an opioid crisis comparable to the one currently plaguing the United States, nor has the country become engulfed in cartel violence as a result of its position as a transit nation.
“Most of the states that are now wracked by violence in Latin America are categorically weak states in terms of the ability of the government to exercise control over both town and country,” Gingeras said.
“Turkey has invested far more in internal security,” he continued. “Parenthetically, there has been evidence of state collaboration between Turkish traffickers and officials.”
Looking at more recent trends, the rising prevalence of meth threatens to wreak havoc on Turkish society, as it has in all nations where consumption rates have grown.
In a particularly grisly event last September, a 26-year-old identified as Ali S. stabbed his 58-year-old mother, Havva S., to death in their home in the Fevzi Çakmak neighborhood of İstanbul's Bağcılar district.
He then decapitated her body and threw her head out the window onto the street. Reports indicated that for the past six months the man – who was subsequently arrested on murder charges – was abusing meth.
Bağcılar has been particularly affected by the drug. As İstanbul's second-most populated district, it’s also known for high crime rates and unchecked urban growth, where shabby rows of two-story apartments sit in the shadows of high-rise residences.
For Bağcılar's youth, the relatively recent arrival of the highly-addictive stimulant is the latest in a series of troubles that has afflicted the area.
“It’s not just methamphetamine, but a variety of drugs have hit Bağcılar hard and continue to do so,” Barış (alias), a teenager who lives in the district, told Turkey recap.
“Poor young people are selling on every street in the neighborhood to make money,” he continued. “This is why the crime rate is high. The young population of Bağcılar are wasting away as a result of this addiction.”
A decade ago it was bonzai, a dangerous but cheap synthetic cannabinoid, that was spreading through these neighborhoods and catching on among working class youth as it was considerably cheaper than marijuana and alcohol.
The popularity of the drug has since declined but it still remains on the market. Meth, on the other hand, threatens to pose a much larger crisis.
“Partly, [meth’s rise in Turkey] has to do with location. Syria is a major producer of captagon and it produces it with government complicity in obscene amounts. Part of it is, perhaps, price point.” Gingeras said. “I'm speculating here, but part of it may be the lack of stigma. Opium and heroin use, for example, is historically much maligned in Turkish culture.”
“Amphetamines are relatively new and novel,” he continued. “The current conditions, specifically the issue of Syrian amphetamine production, doesn't bode well for the future for Turkey.”
Though reports on meth's rising popularity appear routinely in local media, often with alarmist undertones, there have been few attempts to engage the crisis in a nuanced way.
Journalist Bilge Çay was among the few to address the trend comprehensively in a 2021 longform article for the Dijital Habitat platform, in which he interviewed numerous users and addiction specialists.
It’s an engaging and tragic read that explores the motives people in Turkey have turned to meth and underlines some users begin using the drug to stay awake and on task at work before developing damaging dependencies.
Predicting meth use will continue to rise in Turkey, Çay concludes her report by warning that “the solution is not to blame the users or present the problem in newspaper headlines as the ‘methamphetamine scourge’. Experts need to examine the situation in our country in detail and create a roadmap.”
Diego Cupolo, co-founder + editor @diegocupolo
Gonca Tokyol, freelance journalist @goncatokyol
Ingrid Woudwijk, freelance journalist @deingrid
Verda Uyar, freelance journalist @verdauyar