Saudi Drug Testing Program Deemed a Failure

By Paul Gaita 01/31/14

The failure of the Kingdom's drug testing policy underscores the country's growing and often ignored substance abuse problem.

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A mandatory premarital test for drug addiction in Saudi Arabia has been deemed a failure by the country’s health ministry.

Established in 2004 after reports of widespread drug use among young Saudis, the test screened more that 2.5 million people, but only diagnosed 270 to 300 cases per year. That number stands in stark contrast to the more than 200,000 individuals deemed to be drug addicts by a recent survey, also administered by the Ministry of Health. Dr. Mohammed bin Yahya Saidi, General Director of the Genetic and Chronic Diseases control administration at the Ministry, said that the program had to be abandoned after studies revealed that the test had a loophole that made it easy for individuals to circumvent the test.

“The ministry found that addicts tend to abstain from taking drugs prior to getting married so they can pass drug tests,” Saidi said. “Once married, however, they return to their drug addiction." The drug test program’s failure is the latest in a mounting series of drug-related issues in Saudi Arabia, which have been compounded by the government’s reluctance to admit that any sort of substance abuse problem is taking place in their country.

“Immense volumes” of amphetamines pass through Saudi Arabia on a regular basis, according to Matthew Nice of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In 2008, Saudis seized 12.8 metric tons of illegal amphetamines – a staggering amount when compared to the amount seized worldwide, which totaled 24.3 metric tons. A 2014 survey of addicts in Riyadh also revealed that heroin is also taking its toll on the population, with 68 percent of a group of 302 addicts admitting to its use. But the Saudi government has largely turned a blind eye to the mounting issue, as evidenced by the Education Ministry’s decision to cancel drug testing for students in 2013.

A spokesman for the ministry was quoted as saying that there was no need for the tests because “drug abuse is not rampant among Saudis, who are raised in a religious environment.” And while reports like the failure of the drug test point to a degree of change in attitude towards the subject, the government faces a considerable uphill battle in regard to treatment. Rehabilitation is a low priority for many addicts, as shown by the Riyadh survey, which revealed that of a group of 172 addicts that received medical detoxification, only six per cent returned to complete the rehabilitation program.

The Saudi government also lacks trained personnel to administer any significant treatment. “You have very highly qualified people in military and customs, but not in [drug] demand reduction or the medical approach side,” said Professor Jallal Toufiq, founder of the Middle East and North Africa Harm Reduction Association.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.