Turkey has a major drug problem—here’s how to get a handle on it

Turkish anti-drug police stand next to drugs and weapons, which according to Istanbul Police department are worth $3.6 million, that were seized during raids across Istanbul, Turkey March 27, 2017. REUTERS/Osman Orsal - RTX32WAY

As wars, migration, and other dynamics re-shape politics and security in the Middle East and Europe, Turkey has been a bridge country in many ways. But one challenge that has been understudied is the illegal drug trade in the country. It is a complex and multidimensional issue that poses public safety, national security, and public health threats and risks—and one that I explore in detail in a new report for the Brookings project Improving Global Drug Policy: Comparative Perspectives Beyond UNGASS.

The problem with being a land bridge

For decades, Turkey has grappled with serious challenges related to the trade and use of illicit drugs. Drug cultivation itself subsided in the 1970s, when poppy production was effectively licensed for the production of medical opiates, and illegal poppy cultivation and the diversion of opiates into the illegal trade. Today, illegal drug production today in Turkey is limited to cannabis, cultivated mainly for domestic consumption, and small amounts of captagon.

But it’s drug trafficking in Turkey that’s the real problem today. A variety of drugs are trafficked into and through Turkey each year, including heroin, cocaine, synthetic cannabis (bonsai), methamphetamine, and captagon (a type of amphetamine).

The trafficking has a very transnational flavor—a fact that’s hardly surprising, given Turkey’s proximity to key demand markets in Europe and the Middle East, as well as its location as a land bridge from supply countries like Afghanistan. Turkish drug trafficking groups have gained considerable power, global reach, and market control across Europe (particularly in heroin trafficking). And many other international drug trafficking groups also operate in Turkey—particularly Syrian entities, which have gained a newly significant role in Turkey’s illegal drug trade as civil wars in Iraq and Syria have reshaped smuggling routes. Turkey is thus a key vector of the smuggling route that carries Afghan heroin to the West through the Balkans.

Finally, drug trafficking networks in Turkey have diversified into and facilitated other forms of smuggling and illicit economies in Turkey, including the smuggling of Syrians to Western countries. Turkish drug trafficking groups are now involved in human smuggling, cigarette smuggling, and antiquities trafficking.

Ripple effects

Beyond criminality and corruption, drug trafficking in Turkey is a matter of national security. The drug trade has been a key source of terrorism financing in Turkey—the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), for example, is partly funded through drug trafficking, deriving perhaps as much as $300 million to $500 million from the drug trade annually in the late 1990s. The PKK’s involvement in drug trafficking dates back to the 1980s, when traffickers smuggling drugs from Iran through Turkey were required to pay a tax to the PKK, which controlled both sides of the Turkey-Iran border. Even in 2013, drug traffickers arrested in Turkey said it was impossible to cross the border without paying the PKK, and that only traffickers connected to the group could cross without paying.

Equally troubling, drug consumption is on the rise in Turkey, with a corresponding increase in the number of addicts. While cannabis and bonsai (a synthetic form of cannabis) are most frequently consumed, heroin use is also rising. Despite inadequate data, there is a widespread popular sense in Turkey, shared by Turkish law enforcement agencies, that drug use is reaching serious levels. However, the Turkish government has paid inadequate attention to drug use prevention and treatment, both of which are vastly underfunded and underdeveloped, while drug seizures and crackdowns on small-scale drug peddling have been overemphasized. Tens of thousands of people have been charged with drug trafficking for possession and sale of cannabis, for example. Harm reduction policies and even basic research and analysis, meanwhile, have been lacking.

A better way to tackle

Turkish drug policies remain mostly ineffective in responding to drug use, preventing drug trafficking in Turkey, and mitigating the threats it poses. As I detail in my new report, Turkish drug policies today are not effective, comprehensive, or integrated. This is all the more unfortunate since between 2002 and 2013, the criminal justice system, police, and drug policies in Turkey registered many improvements. After decades of political turmoil, weak governance capacity, and political interference in law enforcement, Turkish police and law enforcement agencies experienced significant modernization, institutional development, and robust growth in capacities during that decade.

These changes also resulted in more effective policies toward drug trafficking. Unfortunately, the improvements in policy design and capacity were eviscerated after December 2013, when the Turkish government purged the police forces and the judicial system following revelations of extensive corruption in the top levels of the Turkish government. Since then, whenever police operations have revealed corruption within the government, law enforcement and judiciary personnel have been fired.

Hard as it is—given the current political context in Turkey and the dismantling of rule of law there—Turkey needs to adopt fundamental reforms in its fight against the drug trade and its efforts to limit the negative effects of drug use. It should expand resources for and focus on harm reduction and demand reduction. Turkey should also strengthen the capacity and independence of its law enforcement and judiciary through improved laws, investigative procedures, and bolstered capacities. The government should improve anti-money-laundering and anti-corruption capacities, regional counternarcotics cooperation, border security, and the vetting of migrants and refugees in Turkey for connections to terrorism and organized crime.