The epidemic is already raging and any further delay will be catastrophic
On New Year’s Day, after the usual prayers, the head of a religious organization informed the congregation, amongst other messages, that he had been requested by an officer of the Anti-drug and Smuggling Unit to give a helping hand to combat drug abuse and illicit trafficking in the village. He asked members of the audience to come forward and discuss drug-related problems within their families and in the neighbourhood, if any, in order to find ways to tackle the problem.
It is also well known that the ADSU officer responsible for the area is seen regularly at the bus station monitoring the situation, and keeping an eye on students. Further information reveals that the neighbourhood, which had been drug free in the past, has now a few young people who have taken to drugs. What is happening in this particular village in upper Plaines Wilhems has already taken place in numerous places throughout the island. And, in the light of various media reports, one may safely conclude that illicit drug consumption has become an epidemic, and more than at any time before, a full-fledged drug education programme should be put in place by the authorities.
The efforts of government and of a number of organisations and dedicated individuals to fight drug abuse since its proliferation in 1987 is well known. In recent years there was the National Institute for Civic Education (the Nice Project) trained and directed by a consultant who was an ex-commander of the Singapore military. It had an important component on ‘substance abuse and issues’ and was well appreciated by various stakeholders in the education sector – educators and MIE lecturers, as well as lecturers from the Police Training school. The approach to drug education was innovative. Classes were interactive, with the full participation of students who expressed their views freely and openly and volunteered suggestions about how to tackle the problem at their level.
Unfortunately the project was discontinued, and there has since not been any new project about drug education at the secondary level. Up to now the various measures taken, namely the setting up of a Commission of Inquiry, new laws and changes in the criminal justice system, treatment of drug users and rehabilitation policies as well as the work of NGOs and of a number of dedicated social workers are all commendable efforts, but most of these initiatives are directed towards the supply side of drug consumption.
Every effort is being made to prevent drugs from entering the country and to punish those involved in drug trafficking and consumption. The Lam Shang Leen inquiry has clearly shown that too often these efforts are being undermined by the very people who are entrusted with the task of combating drug trafficking – a few police and customs officials, lawyers and political middlemen close to government. This is not new. In the wake of the Amsterdam affair, 54 policemen were suspended from duty as a result of Justice Sir Maurice Rault’s findings, and it is not known what happened next. A number of the suspended officers had been rehabilitated, and it is alleged that there are those who would have gone into property development…
While more efforts must be undertaken to tackle the problem on the supply side, one should be aware that the resources of the drug suppliers easily outwit those of the government and the concerned authorities. Only two weeks ago, in Singapore, two people were arrested whilst producing drugs in a small make-shift laboratory inside an apartment block. That this should happen in a country like Singapore, which is known to deal with the drug problem with an iron hand, is indeed surprising.
Are we in Mauritius keeping tabs on the doings in local laboratories or even in school laboratories? In 1960 a chemistry teacher demonstrated to his pupils in the school laboratory the process of distilling cane juice into alcohol; that was just an academic experiment undertaken to satisfy the curiosity of his pupils. Today when almost anything good or bad can be learnt from the internet, one can imagine the dangers which lurk ahead for the younger generation.
It is for these reasons that drug education should become compulsory in our secondary schools and a full-fledged programme put in place at the earliest to address the demand side of the problem. Supply can induce demand, but so long as there is demand there will be supply.
To put in place a compulsory education programme is easier said than done. We all recognize that drug abuse results from the interplay of the individual, the environment and a number of economic, social as well as political factors. The illegal drug trade is a global black market worth billions of dollars, and it has at its command vast resources and a wide array of professionals and criminals at various levels in the supply chain – from drug preparation to marketing. With the support of their own political lobbies, drug barons can easily circumvent any obstacle in their way. Unless a government is committed to the setting up of a drug education programme through investments in vast resources and the recruitment of the right professionals to implement its policies, we would end up paying only lip service to the fight against drug abuse.
We need experts in drug education to frame a drug education policy and to take responsibility for its implementation at the classroom level. They must work in collaboration with local stakeholders to prepare programmes to reach all our students in the different age groups. For example, we should take into consideration that social factors such as long hours of work, poverty, unemployment and sheer lack of parenting skills make it difficult for many parents to play an important role in drug prevention – though we keep on repeating the cliché that parents should be responsible for the education and upbringing of their children. More often than not, they are themselves at a loss about how to tackle a family problem or how to cope with the younger generation, and they cannot secure help or advice from friends, relatives or the authorities for appropriate action.
We do not have experts on drug education in our higher education institutions that can train, for a start, a batch of at least 50 educators, who will be expected to dedicate all their time to implement and sustain an effective drug abuse prevention programme in the education sector. Since we do not have the expertise locally, our institutions should be able to recruit a few foreign specialists, put up an advanced certificate or diploma course in drug education for educators or for teacher trainers.
What we should avoid at all costs is to claim that anyone can teach anything and everything, as has too often been the case in many of our institutions. While we recognize that in a small country like ours, we cannot have super specialists or even specialists in every field, we cannot leave important matters in the hands of amateurs. We cannot train people through one- or two-week workshops by people who may have expertise in certain branches or related branches of knowledge but know nothing about how to prepare a drug education curriculum, train educators, devise strategies for implementation at the classroom level and make proper evaluation of progress and on-going changes in the light of practical experience.
Such a vast programme will be challenging for the authorities to put in place. The secondary school population runs into thousands of students and the authorities may even plead that they cannot secure adequate finances for such an ambitious programme. Drug abuse has already destroyed too many of our young people and many more are at risk. Since it has become an epidemic ruining the lives of our young people and their families and our precious human resources on which the country is dependent for its survival, urgent measures are long overdue and must be taken right now.
People throughout the island must exert pressure at all levels and ask for compulsory drug education, through parent-teacher associations, village council and municipal council representatives, our MLAS and ministers as well as political parties, religious and other civic associations. The epidemic is already raging and any further delay will be catastrophic.
* Published in print edition on 19 January 2018