Back from the Brink: Turkey's Ambivalent Approaches to the Hard Drugs Issue

By Robins, Philip | The Middle East Journal, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview

Back from the Brink: Turkey's Ambivalent Approaches to the Hard Drugs Issue


Robins, Philip, The Middle East Journal


This article focuses on the issue of narcotics and Turkey over a 30-year period. Its point of departure is the 1970s, when the opium production crisis in Turkey, and its associated corrosion of relations with the US, had been brought to an end. The article concentrates on the period in the late 1980s/early to mid-1990s, when the hard drugs issue became fused with other security threats like terrorism and state corruption. During this dark period, Turkey's criminal organizations that were trafficking narcotics made significant inroads in alliance-building with parts of the security state. The article ends with the experiences of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the Turkish state succeeded in containing the impact of illicit drugs. The article argues that both external but in particular internal factors were important in propelling the Turkish state towards purging itself of criminal elements involved with hard drugs. With respect to the latter, it argues that the need to safeguard the state, rather than the narcotics issue per se, was the key factor driving change.

For more than ten years, officials and politicians have asserted that the vast majority of heroin ending up on the streets of Western Europe has had a Turkish dimension to it.1 For much of that time the conventional wisdom has been that the drug transits Turkey, "the key route,"2 and is smuggled by "Turkish" gangs, who then play a major role in its distribution.3 Moreover, much of the refining process that turns morphine base into heroin has been conducted on Turkish soil. Recently, it has been widely suspected that less of this heroin still transits Turkey, though the volume remains significant; nevertheless, the role of "Turkish" gangs remains undiminished.4

Assuming that these assertions are true, and they remain broadly uncontested, it is surely surprising that they are so under-discussed. Virtually without exception, there has been no published research in English on any aspect of the issues raised above, from the nature and modus operandi of the narcotics smugglers and refiners,5 through the political context and policy responses in Turkey, to the broader subject of international cooperation, both bilateral and multilateral, between Turkish and European officials. This absence of established knowledge extends to other European languages.6 Even in Turkish there are only a handful of studies on the narcotics issue as such,7 though there exists a larger corpus of published work on related aspects, notably terrorism, corruption, and organized crime. It is the intention of this article, with its focus on the evolution of Turkish narcotics perspectives, and the factors that drive it, to begin to address at least one of these lacunae.

This article adopts an analytical, chronological approach to the subject of hard drugs and Turkey, broadly spanning the three decades from the middle of the 1970s to the present. More particularly, it seeks to analyze the main phases in official Turkish attitudes towards hard drugs, here taken to consist of opium and its derivatives, notably heroin. The argument of the article will be threefold. First, that for much of the last two decades European and Turkish understanding of the narcotics issue has been badly out of synch, with few mechanisms for fostering mutual comprehension, the building of trust, and hence the launching of common strategies. Second, that the rise of the narcotics issue in the Turkish policy agenda has been the result of both endogenous and exogenous factors, with the former arguably the most important. However, it is also the case that the former have been driven by related factors, notably political violence, and the insidious corrupting of the state, rather than by the narcotics issue itself. Third, that, as a result of this, there has been a belated convergence in European and Turkish concerns over narcotics issues spanning the last decade. In spite of these more felicitous developments, however, cooperation is more fitful and patchy than reflective of a stable and sustained convergence on the narcotics issue.

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