The last time the drugs issue was debated in the National Assembly was during its session of October 23, 2018. It was triggered by a PNQ by the Leader of the Opposition (Mr X. L. Duval) who asked the Minister Mentor, Minister of Defence, Minister for Rodrigues ‘whether, in view of the very serious issues with regard to the prisons services identified by the Commission of Inquiry on Drug Trafficking in Mauritius, he will state if he will consider the setting up, as recommended in paragraph 7.13.14 of the Report of the Commission, of an in-depth inquiry into the prison administration, including, to probe into the corrupt prison officers and also dealing with the (a) control of drug trade from inside prisons; (b) rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners, and (c) prisons infrastructures’.
Sir Anerood Jugnauth gave his reply to the PNQ together with PQ B/918 as they related to the same subject matter. He began by highlighting that ‘well before the publication of the Report of the Commission of Inquiry on drugs, I had instructed the Commissioner of Prisons to initiate a series of measures to control the entry of individuals in our prisons, including visitors and lawyers, as well as the entry of prohibited items such as mobile phones and illicit substances’, and then detailed these measures.
It would be recalled that after three years of continuous work, the Commission of Inquiry on drug trafficking chaired by former Puisne Judge Paul Lam Shang Leen had finally submitted its report to the Acting President of the Republic, and Government subsequently decided to make it public on July 27, 2018.
It may also be noted that a Task Force has been set up under the Chair of the Director General of the Independent Commission Against Corruption, to coordinate the implementation, by the relevant investigative agencies, of the recommendations contained in the Report of the Commission of Inquiry. Sir Anerood Jugnauth at the same sitting stated: ‘I also wish to inform the House that out of 87 recommendations concerning prisons made by the Commission of Inquiry, 32 measures have already been implemented and 22 other measures are currently being implemented. However, it is a fact that the implementation of a few other measures may take some time as they require amendments to legislation or a major change in policy decision’.
There has been no further official statement as a follow-up to what Sir Anerood Jugnauth replied about the Task Force, and in fact now that he is no longer in Government, it would be useful to know whether someone else has taken charge of this dossier and certainly an update would be desirable. Especially so because there was a perception that Government had been stalling post the Commission of Enquiry Report, that was followed by the ignominious departure of certain ministers and others in proximity to the Government. Now that it has an even stronger mandate the people are expecting more concrete and definitive steps on its part to control the drug problem in line with the Prime Minister’s own earlier declaration that he would be ruthless in dealing with the drug traffickers.
Although we do not have access to any statistics about whether the drug situation is aggravating, that it is indeed a matter of continuing serious concern is evidenced by the number of drug hauls that keep being made and widely reported, besides the empirical evidence of the spread of synthetic drugs among the youth and in educational institutions, with several anecdotal accounts of families destroyed and deaths among the addicted.
Either way, the situation demands that we find as rapidly as possible a viable and sustainable long term solution. As Alison Ritter, Professor & Specialist in Drug Policy, UNSW Australia, concluded in her article titled ‘Our drugs policies have failed. It’s time to reinvent them based on what actually works’ published in The Conversation of December 8, 2016, ‘When faced with a problem of national concern that has, in addition, the potential for lethal impact across all levels of society, we can either hide our heads in the sand like the ostrich, or we can decide to face it squarely and do what is needed: politically neutral policy decisions based on the best evidence, integrated with other types of knowledge, and engaging all voices, including people who use drugs’.
What is clear is that there must a political will cutting across party lines – for this is a national issue – that would take the bold decision of bringing together on one platform the experts in the matter along with the stakeholders, to cogitate, consider all options available in light of the fact that worldwide ‘punitive’ drug policies have failed, and make actionable proposals that can be implemented without delay or undue constraints.
As is only too well known, a major hurdle in the drug control policy has been the issue of allowing the use of soft drugs such as cannabis, and we would submit that there must be no shying away from debating the issue dispassionately. On this score, we must learn from countries such as Uruguay and Portugal, or the several states (e.g. Colorado) in the US that have been running successful projects using cannabis, implemented of course with all the safeguards, regulatory structures and within legal parameters.
These countries have adopted the alternative approach of decriminalization and legalization. Decriminalization is a loosening of criminal penalties now imposed for personal cannabis use even though the manufacturing and sale of the substance remain illegal. Legalization is the lifting or abolishment of laws banning the possession and personal use of cannabis. More importantly, legalization allows the government to regulate and tax marijuana use and sales.
It goes without saying that there are arguments both for and against decriminalization and legalization, but it must be reiterated that we simply can’t just cross our fingers and wait while drug addiction continues to destroy lives, families, and society. Trade-off there must be, and therefore we must decide and make a choice, based on agreed best practices founded upon ‘continuously evaluated, evidence-based policies and programs’ as referred to above.
Given the complexities involved, we cannot take a stand either way, and we must leave it to the experts to make the concrete proposals which must then be acted upon. What we are appealing for and advocating is urgent action on a national problem that is decimating our population. It mustn’t appear as if we have, ostrich-like, relegated it to the backburner. The problem is crying for an urgent solution, which we MUST find without any further delay.
* Published in print edition on 21 February 2020