Young Turks do designer drugs as good times roll
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Emre is a successful university student with a promising future.
He enjoys privileges most Turkish youngsters can only dream of. He has a car, takes overseas trips, and goes to a private college. And like a growing number of his peers, Emre regularly takes drugs.
"It gives you a different point of view. You start to see the world from another angle," said Emre, who is in his early 20s and based in Istanbul. He declined to give his surname.
Statistics point to a sharp rise in the use of synthetic drugs among young Turks. Social and economic changes, drug prices and tourism are blamed for a trend that has also altered traditional smuggling patterns in the mainly Muslim country.
The increase in the use of ecstasy pills mirrors a sharp improvement in the economy, which has been clocking up annual growth of up to 10 percent, and the emergence of Istanbul, a city of around 12 million people, as a popular European party destination.
Ecstasy -- which is known for inducing euphoria and energy while reducing inhibitions -- has long been part of the clubbing scene in the West but it is relatively new in Turkey.
"Turkey was in a very good position regarding drug use rates before ecstasy came along," said Cem Cehdioglu, head of the Turkish narcotics department in the capital Ankara.
Drug smuggling into Turkey is booming and traffickers use "unimaginable" methods, he said, giving the example of drugs being smuggled across the border inside a dead baby.
Turkey has long been a transit country for drugs, such as hashish, heading to Europe from countries such as Afghanistan. For synthetic drugs, the flow goes the other way.
"The Netherlands is like the Afghanistan of Europe ... Eighty percent of synthetic drugs come from there," Cehdioglu said, adding that Turkey has now become a transit country for synthetic drugs on their way from Europe to Arab countries.
Police say they seized 30,000 ecstasy pills in 1999. This rose to 718,000 in 2004 and exceeded 1 million by 2005.
AN IMAGE THING
The number of Turks found using or in possession of ecstasy, also known as MDMA, jumped over 100 percent to 1,443 in 2004, police data showed. However, this figure only represents those caught with the drug.
Police blame the Internet for sparking curiosity among young people, seeking to imitate the flash lives of celebrities they see in magazines and on the television.
Weakening family ties in Turkey's cities and liberal attitudes towards drugs in some European countries have also contributed to ecstasy's popularity, the police say.
"The presentation of ecstasy as a happiness pill by the media creates curiosity among youngsters, and even housewives use it in the belief it helps to lose weight," Cehdioglu said.
Another attraction for Turkey's middle-class youth is price: one ecstasy pill costs around 10 lira (4.30 pounds) in Turkey -- the price of two hamburgers.
Since the drug's heyday in the late 1990s, street prices of ecstasy pills have fallen. In London, one tablet sells for just 3 pounds and prices are lower in other parts of Britain.
Drug use is illegal in Turkey but under reformed laws users are not treated as criminals but as sick people who need to be helped. The government offers free treatment for drug addicts, but repeat offenders are given jail sentences.
Nesrin Bilbaz, chief doctor at Ankara's treatment centre for drug addicts and alcoholics (AMATEM), said tourism and rave parties lasting up to three days had helped fuel the trend.
"Turkey is in the position of Spain in 1986 when holiday-makers contributed to a boom in drug consumption ... We are in great danger because tourism and this nightlife culture are stimulating demand for drugs," she said.
Turkey attracted more than 21 million foreign tourists in 2005, up some 20 percent from the previous year.
Turkey's population is also very young -- out of a total of nearly 68 million people, some 35 million are under 25 -- and this increased the risk of drug use, Bilbaz said.
WAY OF LIFE
Many young people use drugs because they are unable to deal with stress and daily problems, said Ilhami Huner, a senior official in the state narcotics department.
"People can be happy without having to resort to drugs. We need to show them how to deal with their problems," he said.
The young people dancing in an Istanbul club disagree.
"Why should I spend 100 lira (43 pounds) on drinks if I can get the same effect for 10 lira with ecstasy?" said one young clubber who wanted to remain anonymous.
"I am not doing anything wrong by taking ecstasy, everybody I know is doing it," he said. Around him, youngsters wore dark glasses and the air was thick with the smell of hashish.
But Emre said there was a downside.
"It hits the memory. I have difficulty remembering things, and sometimes I have flashbacks. I hear the siren sounds (of the disco) and I sweat like I do when I'm high," he said."
By Selcuk Gokoluk