Strengthening drug control policy

By TP Saran

Should we reintroduce death penalty and/or regulate and tax drugs?

In last week’s edition of this paper, correspondent LEX proposed that we should revisit our drug control policy, making reference to the issue of methadone distribution. As a matter of fact, the Minister of Health and Quality of Life (MOH) answered a parliamentary question on this matter on Tuesday 3rd July, with facts and figures to show that the programme was achieving its aims since over 5000 of the nearly 10000 injecting drug users had been weaned on to methadone, and the programme was ongoing to rope in the remaining numbers.

Not that this was easy, because it depends on the active support of the NGOs and other grassroots peers who have to work at community level. Still, that so much headway has been made in such a short time since the start of the programme a few years ago can only be testimony to the willingness of the authorities to tackle the drug issue head-on.

Nevertheless, it would seem that there is a need for more coherence in the matter of drug control, which must not focus exclusively on the hard drugs (heroine, cocaine, cannabis) but must also and importantly take on board the soft or socially acceptable drugs of addiction, mainly alcohol and tobacco. The latter in particular is causing harm to hundreds of thousands of families and individuals as opposed to the few thousands being hit by hard drugs – the reason for our making a case for the setting up of a National Task Force/Framework for Alcoholism in this column last week. A greater coordination is required among the three main entities dealing with the drug problem, namely, the Drug Commissioner’s Office, the Anti-Drug Smuggling Unit and MOH. Put simply, there are only three ways to control drug use/abuse:

1. Criminalise
2. Legalise
3. Medicalise

Sensitisation and education have, unfortunately, little impact on behaviour, though they must nevertheless be part of each of these control mechanisms. The conventional approach has been to criminalise drugs, the aim being to hit drug traffickers through a series of measures such as those applied by the Drug Commissioner’s Office: tracking of the major offenders, freezing of assets in banks, etc; and those applied by ADSU which were detailed in the reply given by the Prime Minister in the National Assembly also on Tuesday 3rd July and which were published in this paper last week.

It is clear that this approach is touching only the tip of the iceberg, and we must go further on this aspect. We concur with LEX that the death penalty must be introduced; Singapore must be our model in this case because this policy has worked there better than elsewhere. The highlights of Singapore’s drug policies are:

· The Misuse of Drugs Act in Singapore allows the police to search anyone they deem to be suspicious of drug use or trafficking without a warrant.

· Police can demand a urinalysis, and the failure to comply carries an automatic presumption of guilt.

· A conviction for trafficking of drugs (which means anyone carrying a certain amount of drugs such as more than 500 grams of cannabis, 30 grams of cocaine, or 15 grams of heroin) carries a mandatory death penalty.

Of course we need to make a thorough study of the Singapore model before we adopt/adapt it to suit our local situation. There will always be two camps – those who oppose the death penalty and those are for it. But a responsible government must rule and devise policies founded on a solid evidence base. This seems to be true for drug trafficking. We cannot allow our youth and society to be destroyed.

In line with established best practice we have introduced the Harm Reduction Strategies consisting of the methadone substitution programme and the needle exchange programme, both of which are already showing positive results. Of course there are some criticisms and constraints, but these will never cease – and authorities too must never cease to do what they consider is right by the community of drug addicts. It so happens that the medicalisation in our context is also tied to the HIV-AIDS problem, but being given this reality both problems are being addressed through these strategies.

But elsewhere, especially in Mexico and the US, both these approaches have shown their limitations. The thinking is turning towards possible legalization, something which Uruguay is planning to implement and projecting that most countries in Latin America with the drug trafficking problem will likely follow suit. An article on Uruguay’s decision was published in this paper last week.

The strategy is to regulate and tax drugs: along with taking the criminals out of the supply chain it would also save the taxpayer millions by emptying our prisons of non-violent drug offenders, freeing up our courts and reducing policing costs. It would also liberate taxpayers’ money which could then be used to clear up real crimes that actually affect peoples’ lives, such as violence and theft along with educating our children and paying for doctors and nurses to prescribe for, counsel, treat and follow up drug addicts, with the support of civil society organizations and statutory entities such as, locally, NaTRESA.

Basically what is required is similar to other regulatory agencies, namely, as Uruguay proposes to do: licensing producers, registering authorized dealers at specified supply points, licensing growers for personal use, creating a database of authorized drug users, and making provision for penalties – because as with other areas of human activity, there will always be some defaulters, and the sanctions must be such as to act as a strong deterrent.

A combination of the three methods will undoubtedly make drug control more effective, and this must be thought through followed by swift implementation. The country awaits.

* Published in print edition on 13 July 2012

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