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Israel Has a Drug Problem – and Covid Made an Impact

avatar by i24 News

Paxlovid, a Pfizer’s coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pill, is seen manufactured in Ascoli, Italy, in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters on Nov. 16, 2021. Photo: Pfizer/Handout via Reuters

i24 News — Like many countries worldwide, Israel faces a drug problem fueled by overprescription and a lack of cohesive drug policy, and Covid shines a light on these issues.

Between 2011 and 2016, the availability of opioids in the Jewish state grew by 125 percent, compared to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average of 13 percent, the organization reported in 2019.

A study done in 2018 noted that an increase in opioid consumption between 2009 and 2016 was associated with “substantial changes in… prescribing opioids,” notably “increases in oxycodone and fentanyl prescriptions,” and a decrease in other medications such as methadone.

Additionally, Oren Miron, a doctoral researcher at Ben Gurion University, found that one in every 10 Clalit (the largest of Israel’s four state-mandated health service organizations) members were given at least one prescription for opioids in 2018 alone.

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In 2019, financial daily Calcalist reported Israel’s Health Ministry was creating an opioid “task force” that would provide recommendations regarding any policy changes needed to tackle the increase in opiate use in Israel. However, no data on the task force could be found.

Israel’s Health Ministry did not respond to questions about the task force by the time of publication.

While many fall into addiction because of prescriptions, that isn’t always the case, and the medication could simply expose a pre-existing condition.

“Some people get their first taste from a doctor,” Eric Levitz told i24NEWS. Levitz is a founder of AZ House in Jerusalem, a recovery center for addicts. “I would argue they got their first taste of relief. They were waiting for that solution because of the underlying issues that I believe are necessary for a person to fall into drug addiction.”

Even without prescriptions, drugs are easily accessible in Israel.

With networks like Telegram, highly addictive opioids can be brought to someone’s house with the click of a button. Patches of fentanyl – a drug up to 50 times stronger than heroin – sell for roughly $60, and Percocet tablets at $140, according to an article by Ynet.

In February 2018, Israel’s parliament (Knesset) abolished the Israel Anti-Drug Authority Law, Hagit Bonny-Noach told i24NEWS. Bonny-Noach consulted for the Anti-Drug Authority for 20 years and is a criminology researcher at Ariel University.

She stated that the problem with the Anti-Drug Authority dissolving was the lack of comprehensive drug policy that followed. While the Health Ministry and the Education Ministry would now deal with aspects of drug policy – each ministry would have a different perspective and would often clash.

“If you go to the Health Ministry, for example, they have a lot of other problems that aren’t drugs or addiction,” Bonny-Noach said. “That’s not the main issue that they deal with. They are doing a great job in other areas, but a lot of people suffer that need help.”

With the introduction of Covid in 2020 and the resulting lockdowns, problems seemed to worsen.

The administration of Rothberg High School in Ramat Hasharon identified Covid as a primary factor exacerbating addiction in an interview with Ynet. “Drug use is in no way new, but like with so much, Covid has made it worse.”

Parents at the high school were told of a “sharp increase in student use of drugs in general, and of prescription medication in particular” at the height of the Covid lockdown. “It has recently come to our attention that there is heavy use of opioid painkillers (i.e., Morphine, Oxycodone, Fentanyl, etc.) They look like prescription medication which can be swallowed or sniffed,” said the message, according to Ynet.

Elem, an Israeli nonprofit dedicated to treating at-risk youth, saw a 30 percent increase in the number of youth in the association’s projects during the Covid pandemic, as well as a 41 percent increase in cases of online distress.

“More and more young people and teenagers have turned to alcohol and drugs to relieve boredom or deal with their distress,” Nava Barak, president of Elem, explained at an event at the UN International Narcotics Control Board in April 2021, according to The Jerusalem Post.

In a survey Bonny-Noach conducted of recovered drug addicts regarding drug cravings during the first lockdown, more than half of respondents reported a desire to use drugs, 19 percent reported craving to a significant extent, and 27 percent reported feeling that their staying free from drugs was in jeopardy.

Of those who said their cravings intensified, over half reported that it was due to boredom during the lockdown.

“Being socially isolated is not easy for anyone, and it’s extraordinarily detrimental for drug and alcohol addiction and people in recovery,” Levitz noted.

However, while Covid did exacerbate existing problems, many who were looking for help were able to get it for the first time.

“Specifically because of Zoom, a lot of people had access to meetings and showed up to their first meetings,” Levitz explained.

“And so in some ways, it helped a lot of people, and in some ways, it hurt a lot of people.”

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