Mauritius learned with horror about the death of a young woman police officer, Dimple Raghoo, at Mahebourg during a control delivery operation mounted by the Anti-Drug and Smuggling Unit (ADSU) last Tuesday. Police deaths occurring in the performance of duty against suspected criminals are fortunately quite rare, but the death of WPC Raghoo in violent circumstances, pictures and a video recording of which have been circulated on social media have shocked the nation. Questions are being asked anew about the political will and institutional capacity to fight drug trafficking in the country despite the severe observations and (over 400) recommendations made by the Lam Shang Leen Drug Commission almost two years back.
It would be recalled that following the publication of the report of the Lam Shang Leen Commission of Inquiry a Task Force had been set up under the chairmanship of the Director General of the ICAC, to coordinate the implementation, by the relevant investigative agencies, of the recommendations contained in the report. In his reply to the PNQ put by the then Leader of the Opposition Xavier Duval in October 2018, the former Minister Mentor Sir Anerood Jugnauth had stated that out of 87 recommendations concerning prisons made by the Commission of Inquiry, 32 measures had already been implemented and 22 other measures were in the process of being implemented. We have not since heard much from that Task Force following the ignominious departure of certain politicians and others in proximity to the Government allegedly connected with some drug traffickers, who would also have financed past electoral campaigns.
In the meantime, the almost daily media reports of drug seizures and arrests of traffickers indicate a rise in the proliferation of synthetic drugs. In fact, the number of people arrested in relation to synthetic drugs has doubled every year, and a significant increase of in-patient cases of drug abuse has been recorded at public health institutions, with the figures showing 44% of drug abuse cases related to new psychoactive substances. The ENACT Organised Crime Index for Africa at one time ranked Mauritius number one in the synthetic drug trade in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region and in the top 10 on the continent.
Richard Chelin, Researcher, ENACT project, ISS, in a report on the drug situation here quotes former Attorney-General and justice minister Rama Valayden as stating that ‘there is no way to win the fight against synthetic drugs, since drug producers were replacing compounds in the drug faster than law enforcement could detect them’. Chelin notes in his report that despite the best efforts of the police, the low price and availability of the ingredients coupled with greater reach to buyers through advanced technology enable traffickers to remain a step ahead of law enforcement. ‘Unless this pattern changes, traffickers will have the upper hand and synthetic drugs could become much more prevalent on the island.’ This is indeed what seems to be happening.
The catastrophic consequences on society of proliferating drugs are all too well known. The costs at the level of individual lives and families are incalculable. Common sense is that, unless strong affirmative actions are taken, the situation is bound to deteriorate and drugs would proliferate even more than what is the situation today. Moreover, repression comes at a very heavy cost to the state exchequer, and does not always meet the expectations of society, thus the rethinking being undertaken in some countries about repression and alternative measures to stem drug trafficking.
In an earlier editorial, we had quoted Alison Ritter, Professor & Specialist in Drug Policy, UNSW Australia, who concluded in an article titled ‘Our drugs policies have failed. It’s time to reinvent them based on what actually works’ that ‘there is only one way to make better decisions about illicit drugs and so save lives and money: we need to change the way drugs policies are made. The alternative is to remain stuck in the same futile cycle… We can do much better. We have decades of research that tells us what works and why. In Australia, there are about 100,000 arrests every year for drug use – not for drug supply, but for drug use. This represents an enormous cost, both economically and socially. International evidence shows that the decriminalisation of personal drug use reduces the cost to society and to individuals, and does not significantly increase drug use.
We may also take the cue from Uruguay and Portugal, or the several states in the US that have implemented successful projects using cannabis with all the safeguards, regulatory structures and within legal parameters. These countries have come to terms with the evidence that repression is not working and have adopted the alternative approach of decriminalization and legalization.
As concluded by Alison Ritter, we should ‘stop doing things that simply don’t work, no matter how sensible they might seem. Current drug policy is rarely driven by evidence. Instead, it is driven by perceptions of what the public wants, fuelled by shock jocks and other outspoken media voices. All too often, this reflects responses to single events and tragedies, not patterns and outcomes established over years or decades of methodical research.’
This is a matter of urgency, for the current situation shows that the existing system of control over the drug business has been completely perverted by the drug industry to its benefit. If we keep relying on it, there will be more of the same and society will have to pay an even heavier price in days to come. Will national authorities play ostrich, or will they dare to act? After all, that’s what they have been elected for.
* Published in print edition on 27 November 2020