TRIPOLI, Lebanon: The asphalt-paved patio juts out onto the Tripoli seaside, as a light breeze blows at Ali’s back. Although only 32, Ali’s wide build carries the weight of a father and a former militiaman, as depicted by the lines worn into his face. “I’ve lived through a lot of deprivation and poverty,” he says.
Such problems plague many neighborhoods in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city and northern capital, and the fallout is driving some from the metropolis’ population toward drug abuse and addiction.
A year ago, Ali said he had recently kicked a habit of abusing prescription pills. Today, he says: “If I have some worries and times are tough, I sometimes take a pill. It’s never far from me.”
Around 500,000 people live in Tripoli, a city tarnished by poverty, unemployment, and politically driven armed clashes. The clashes in particular have divided some neighborhoods over their support for opposing sides in neighboring Syria’s civil war, and have had a debilitating effect on the city’s economy.
“In Tripoli there are many poor people and plenty of misery and the situation in general is driving youngsters to take these drugs,” says Fatima Badra, president of the Tripoli-based Lebanese Charity Association for Rehabilitation, a nongovernmental organization working to rehabilitate drug abusers in jail.
Too poor to pay the going rate for heroin or cocaine, Tripoli’s underprivileged instead turn to hard-hitting prescription pills such as Rivotril, normally used to control seizure and epilepsy, or the more popular benzhexol, a treatment for Parkinson’s disease.
“Pills like Rivotril and benzhexol are very trendy right now because they’re cheap,” says Badra. The current street price can be as low as around a dollar per pill.
According to a 2012 report released by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), a staggering 51 percent of Tripoli’s population lives in extreme poverty, earning less than $4 a day.
“Poverty, unemployment, deprivation, a lack of security and development ... all these factors push a person to start abusing drugs,” says Dr. Omar Helwe, president of the Lebanese Advisory Center for Development, another Tripoli-based NGO working on drug rehabilitation and social awareness.
Just a year ago, Ali sported a thick yet clean-cropped black beard, shaven above the upper lip, and radiated anger at President Assad’s regime, his supporters in Tripoli, and the Syrian refugees whom he claims are stealing all the work in the city.
Today, he is more mellow and relaxed. His beard has been replaced by stubble, and patches of gray have crept in, giving him a more mature appearance. His cream-colored Ferrari sweatshirt, worn-down jeans and worker boots are dirty from his side-work as a blacksmith. His full-time job is as a bodyguard for a member of Parliament representing Tripoli.
Ali says that while a pill can occasionally help him relax, for others it’s their only escape: “If some people can afford it they buy the whole pack. Some of them work for a whole week to earn LL50,000, then they go buy a box of pills.”
Exacerbating the issue is the ready availability of the pills, which are seemingly everywhere.
“Pills are easy to find,” Omar, a 21-year-old Tripoli native says. “There are many available and they aren’t out of reach for anyone.”
While they are both available at pharmacies, a prescription is mandatory to get a bottle of Benzhexol or Rivotril, but Tripoli’s residents can easily get around this obstacle. Certain medical centers dole out the drugs for a simple fee. Others find shady pharmacies willing to sell pills to people without prescriptions or find doctors willing to write prescriptions in exchange for a bribe. There are also dealers, who often fund their own habit by buying a pack, keeping a few and selling off the rest for profit.
“The first time I was given a pill it was for free from the dealer,” says Omar, who was 15 years old at the time. As with other more potent drugs, dealers often give a free sample to someone who has not used the drug before in the hope that it will hook them, effectively creating a new customer.
Sitting in the backseat of a parked car on one of Tripoli’s main thoroughfares, Omar is thin and hyperactive. He has small, bright green eyes and wears a tight-fitting black T-shirt. His dark curly hair hangs out from under his black baseball cap, the brim worn low. Between drags on his cigarette, he often grins widely, his cartoonish features resembling a boardwalk caricature.
Omar says he takes pills as an escape from his stresses and to alter his state of mind. “Benzhexol relaxes you more and mellows you out. It numbs you,” he says. “It also makes you horny. It makes you feel more confident, with the confidence to seduce any woman.”
“Rivotril, on the other hand, makes you braver. Instead of the mind God created for you, your thoughts go away and only the devil remains. You feel as though you are the only strong person in the world and everyone else – they’re just mosquitoes,” he says softly, almost whispering.
Users sometimes combine pills or take them with alcohol to enhance the effects.
The most dangerous of the effects, however, is the fearlessness that the pills instill in their user. Omar lifts his shirt to show a deep scar on his navel, matching a scar on each forearm, from cutting himself while under the influence of pills.
The pills not only make users braver, but also cut off nerve receptors, allowing them to feel no pain. Omar had to get his knee replaced after crashing his motorbike while under the influence, following a sleepless weekend of pill popping.
Aside from pills, guns are also readily available to many Tripolitans, as is evident by the regular clashes that occur in some of the city’s neighborhoods.
“There’s as many guns as you want here,” says Omar. He says that when he takes Rivotril he tends to start fights – usually with his hands, although he also claims to have a Kalashnikov at home.
“When you’re on pills you don’t know what you’re doing,” says Ali. “You might shoot or kill someone and wake up the next morning without knowing it.”
Ali admitted that some militiamen in Tripoli prepare for battle with rivals from neighboring areas by taking such pills.
Currently, there is not a single rehabilitation center in the whole of north Lebanon. And even if abusers want to kick the habit, it will cost a relative fortune, upward of $1,500 each month.
“If these people had that amount of money they wouldn’t abuse drugs in the first place,” says Dr. Helwe.
NGO employees like Helwe and Badra are adamant that as long as the city is stuck in the limbo of poverty and unemployment, exacerbated by a lack of security on the ground, the cycle of drug use in Tripoli will continue.
Badra says that without rehab centers, users will just end up in jail, often in direct contact with a number of dealers.
Instead of coming out clean, she says, they will often go on to become dealers themselves.
From there, abusers “go in and out [of prison] and in and out,” she says. “Over and over.”