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At a public meeting on security, held in Ankara on January 3, Turkey’s Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu publicly stated that police should break the legs of drug dealers seen loitering outside schools. The Turkish Human Rights Association (IHD) and opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet rightly criticized Soylu’s comments for potentially inciting violence. Despite the inappropriate nature of his comments, however, the minister’s remarks underscore Turkey’s endemic problem with drug abuse, an issue often overlooked in mainstream media coverage of the country.

In defense of his original statement, Soylu announced on January 10 that the number of deaths in Turkey resulting from drug use had doubled in 2017, rising to 1,020 from 520 in 2016. Drug-related arrests in Turkey have also increased. In 2017 alone, Turkish authorities detained almost 50,000 people and arrested over 4,000 for drug-related offenses. Over the past four years, more than 300,000 people have been detained for using and selling drugs.

2017 was a record year for drug hauls in Turkey as well, with security forces seizing twenty metric tons (over 40,000 lbs.) of heroin, according to Deputy Prime Minister Recep Akdağ. By comparison, only five metric tons (about 11,000 lbs.) of heroin were seized in 2015-16. As Akdağ said on January 4, more drugs were seized in Turkey than the whole of Europe last year.

Though domestic drug production remains low, various trafficking networks run through Turkey, connecting black market dealers from Central Asia to Western Europe, according to a report published by the Brookings Institute last spring. As reflected in a 2017 report by the EU’s European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Turkey is a key transit country for gangs smuggling heroin to Europe from Afghanistan.

Since the 1970s, Turkish drug trafficking groups have grown in power, and are now among Europe’s most powerful organized crime entities selling heroin. On January 9, Turkish police carried out a drug bust, confiscating approximately 500 kilograms (over 1000 lbs.) of illegal drugs, with heroin accounting for 150 kilograms (over 300 lbs.) of the seized contraband. Additional operations have led to the seizure of 5,778,593 illegal drugs in pill-form, including ecstasy, amphetamines, and prescription medication.

Despite increasingly harsh legislation and intense police crackdowns, however, Turkish drug policies remain mostly ineffective, both in responding to drug use and preventing drug trafficking. As a result, drug abuse continues to rise among low-income Turkish youth, even in conservative areas of the country. As Dr. Ülkümen Rodoplu, the founding president of the Emergency Medicine Association of Turkey, recently warned, drug users in the country are becoming younger and younger.

While Soylu’s initial statements highlight a determination to bring an end to the problem, his glorification of excessive police force ignores the toll drugs are taking on addicts themselves. Facing intense social stigma and with few state-sponsored medical facilities equipped to treat addiction, many addicts have a difficult time finding a path to recovery. In order to fully address the country’s drug problem, the Turkish government must also work to implement comprehensive social policies to help addicts, beyond ongoing, violent police operations.

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