Ask Sikandar why he switched from opium to heroin and his answer is concise: It was easier to get.
Sikandar, who is 35 but looks 50, started using opium back in 1993, when he was 16 and the country had descended into civil war. By the late 1990s, the sticky paste was harder to find on the streets of Dushanbe, but refined heroin was “everywhere,” including in the city’s prisons, where Sikandar has spent 14 of the past 19 years on drug-possession charges and picked up HIV along the way.
Today, drug users, and a number of Western analysts, say that police and prison guards are deeply involved in Tajikistan’s local heroin trade, contributing to what researchers say is an HIV epidemic. Police deny the charge. Some Tajik health officials, meanwhile, disagree with experts who say that injecting drug use in the country is on the rise, fueled by vast amounts of cheap heroin coming over the porous 1,300-kilometer border with Afghanistan.
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David Trilling is EurasiaNet's Central Asia editor.