As a new U.N. report released on Friday claims drug use worldwide remains stable, experts say that such abuse is relatively invisible in Turkey due to "moral" pressure in Turkish society, which poses a challenge.
Despite the Turkish authorities' success in seizing increasing amounts of illegal drugs, officials remain concerned about the country's role as a trafficking transit point.
June 26 was the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) 2015 World Drug Report, released on Friday, said a total of 246 million people - slightly over 5 percent of those aged 15 to 64 years of age worldwide - used an illegal drug in 2013.
The report goes on to claim "some 27 million people are problem drug users, almost half of whom are people who inject drugs."
Speaking at the report launch in Istanbul on Friday was Üsküdar University Rector Nevzat Tarhan. Tarhan claimed that although usage had not changed, the shape of drug abuse had moved from hard drugs like heroin and cocaine to synthetic substances like "bonzai," the Turkish name for one such synthetic drug.
Saying that bonzai is on an upward trend in Turkey, Tarhan said, "The harm of synthetic drugs such as bonzai is many times more than other drugs. It causes addicts to reject treatment or rehabilitation."
A 2014 Turkish Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (TUBIM) report offered evidence that drug use is displaying an upward trend in Turkey, as news reports also point out that the use of synthetic substances is on the rise. However, others have claimed that Turkish society responds differently to such issues.
Şule Selman, a board member of the Woman Health Workers' Education and Solidarity Foundation, spoke to Anadolu Agency (AA) earlier this week and stressed that Istanbul, despite its enormous size and unlike some other major European cities, does not have a highly visible drug problem in its center. Selman attributed this to "the belief system and moral structure" in Turkey. "Unlike many European countries, Turkey and the Turkish people disapprove of drug use on moral grounds, and this causes people to take drugs in hidden areas," added Selman, who also coordinates a project called Geç Değil (Too Late) to fight teenage drug abuse. "The statistics show that to be treated badly by society or to be disapproved of creates a protective barrier for drug users and has a positive role," she said.
Stiff penalties for drug abuse may also explain the relative lack of open addiction in central Istanbul, according to one Turkish psychiatrist. "Substance abuse is illicit in Turkey and convicted drug users face jail sentences from two-to-five years, with heavy fines," said Burhanettin Kaya, media coordinator of the Psychiatric Association of Turkey. "This is the main reason why people generally chose safe, private places like homes or abandoned or ruined buildings instead of public areas to take drugs." Kaya added, "to be tagged as a "drug user" or "to be seen as a source of crime" also plays a role in addicts' self-isolation. In Europe, governments generally ignore the situation or sometimes even provide them substances to prevent crime. Then they [addicts] do not need to hide themselves from the government or anything else," Kaya said.
According to the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, the Turkish Penal Code enacted in 2005 does not criminalize consumption per se, but imposes prison sentences of one-to-two years for those who buy, receive or possess drugs for personal use.
Nevertheless, Turkey remains a transit country and sometimes a main destination for illegal drugs coming from Central Asia, Iran and Afghanistan. Üsküdar University Vice Rector Sevil Atasoy said: "Besides the UNODC report, both the International Narcotics Control Board and European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction reports show that Turkey is a transit country for illicit traffic between Afghanistan, Iran and Europe."
However, success has been achieved. Atasoy said seizures of heroin had risen to 15 tons in 2014, from under 10 ten tons three years earlier. Atasoy added that the amount of seized marijuana in Turkey increased to 94 tons from 27 tons in 2014.