Hamas burns recreational drugs, taxes cigarettes

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Gaza's Hamas rulers on Tuesday burned nearly 2 million pills of a painkiller many Gazans take recreationally because they say it relaxes them and provides temporary relief from the territory's hardships.

The disposal of the drugs comes days after the Islamic militant group confiscated cigarettes from Gaza shops to collect taxes on them. Both moves are part of Hamas' efforts to strengthen its grip on Gaza and impose its strict interpretation of Islam on the impoverished seaside territory's 1.5 million Palestinian residents.

Hamas Health Minister Basim Naim said authorities burned some 1.7 million pills of a drug called Tramadol that had been seized from smugglers who sneak it through tunnels under the Egyptian border.

Tramadol is a powerful painkiller, related to morphine and heroin, though most countries don't treat it as a controlled substance. Experts have said that those who stop taking the drug after regular use often develop flulike withdrawal symptoms, though long-term effects are rare.

Gaza's Health Ministry recognizes the drug as a painkiller, Naim said, but allows its sale only by prescription.

The drug's popularity in Gaza has grown in recent years as the quality of life has plummeted. Hamas seized the territory from forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007, and Israel and Egypt imposed a strict blockade in 2007, causing shortages of many basic goods.

In late 2008, Israel launched a 3-week offensive in Gaza to stop militant rocket fire on Israeli towns. The war killed about 1,400 Gazans and left vast swaths of the strip in ruins.

The violence and hardship only increased demand for Tramadol, which Gazans who take it recreationally say takes their minds off their worries. Other say it delays ejaculation, enhancing sex. A sheet of eight pills costs around 40 shekels, or a little over $10.

Naim, the health minister, said Hamas wanted to prevent Gazans from seeking these unintended side effects.

"The issue has reached the level where some youth are addicted to this drug, and this makes them seek it out no matter what the cost," he told reporters at the Health Ministry store room where the contraband was being held.

After he spoke, trucks loaded with sacks of Tramadol were driven to Gaza's largest hospital. Workers carried them to the hospital incinerator where a man in a surgical mask tossed them into the flames. Thick black smoke billowed from the smokestack.

The burning of the drugs came days after Hamas police started seizing cigarettes from shops across Gaza. Hamas recently banned smoking in government offices and public places, and said it will levy a tax on cigarettes to limit their availability.

Statements from Hamas religious leaders saying Islam forbids smoking have also been posted on government websites, providing moral backing for a ban.

While the new measures will likely please Gaza's hard-liners, they are bound to rankle those who feel the government is cracking down on the few remaining outlets Gazans have to relieve stress.

Khalil, a 25-year-old university student in Gaza City, said he suspected Hamas imposed the cigarette tax because it has financial problems and "wants the poor citizen to pay the bill for the government's poverty."

Khalil, who didn't give his last name because of the sensitivity of the issue, said he used to smoke a pack of cigarettes a day and take a pill of Tramadol every other day to ease his mind. Now, he's not sure how he'll relax.

"We're all living in a hard psychological situation and we used Tramadol to forget our daily worries and problems," he said. "I go to Tramadol so I can forget all that."