A survey published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and Maldivian National Drug Agency (NDA) has claimed there are 7496 drug users in the Maldives.
According to the findings of the nationwide survey, 6.64 percent of people aged 15-64 in Malé and 2.02 percent in the atolls are currently using drugs, with the highest proportion of drug users aged between 15 and 19 years old.
The study also sought to determine drug use patterns, assess behavioral characteristics, and identify “community knowledge, attitudes and perceptions towards the drug problem”.
According to the study, being unmarried is considered a “risky behavior among drug users”.
Non-governmental organisations (NGOs), community based organisations (CBOs), and other stakeholders were also found to “heavily emphasise law enforcement and faith-based value systems,” as opposed to treatment and rehabilitation.
“A strong endorsement of Sharia’h law was apparent. In words of a key stakeholder, ‘Treatment alone will not yield results. It must be in conjunction with proper punishment’,” the report stated.
The survey findings also “confirmed that drug use in Maldives is predominantly a male phenomenon” and claimed the most common drugs are hash oil and brown-sugar (a heroin derivative) – known locally as theyo and hakaru, respectively.
However, key populations such as those in jail, women, and users of ‘party drugs’ were left out of the survey.
Informed sources who participated in the survey process have expressed serious concerns about the “flawed methodology” of the data collection process, which they claimed had produced a final report that inaccurately and grossly underestimates drug use in the Maldives.
The number of drug users reported by the survey was extremely low compared to the number of actual users, the sources said, which previous studies had found ranged between 20,000 and 30,000 people.
“The methodologies used are flawed and do not work in the Maldivian context because of social stigmas surrounding drug use. There was no effort to develop a methodology that would be appropriate for this country context,” said a source.
The enumerators used to conduct interviews for the survey were “very young, inexperienced kids” while those with “extensive experience” in drug abuse prevention and with surveying were marginalised, sources claimed.
“No one in the Maldives will openly admit ‘I’m a drug user’ – it’s seen as a moral issue because of religious beliefs,” the sources stated.
“The survey team was getting zero numbers from some atolls. But they insisted they were using a scientific methodology and this would be corrected at a later date,” the sources explained.
“All these young people who just finished school who were used as supervisors, they were useless,” the sources alleged.
“Teenage interviewers would go to houses and ask elders if there were any drug users in the household, and of course they said no. Additionally, drug users are also very manipulative,” the sources said.
Production of the report involved 50 enumerators surveying 3500 households, 762 people, and 72 focus group discussions.
“The incentives used – 20 MVR for completing a questionnaire – targeted heroin users only. Additionally, 80 percent of incarcerated population uses drugs and they were not included in this survey,” informed sources stated.
“Furthermore, the differentiation between male and female addicts, and the exclusion of women from the survey, is not something normally done,” the sources added.
The sources claimed the National Drug Agency (NDA) was informed about the methodological flaws, however no action was taken to correct the problem. Moreover the NDA did not set policy standards or engage in oversight and instead conduct implementation without any monitoring, they claimed.
“When this survey started two years ago, the government was informed about all these problems, but they did not give a damn about this. The purpose of all this manipulation is for political reasons. They want to show the public that the [drug abuse] problem is improving,” the sources alleged.
“The government should know what they are doing in this sector. They should know better than to use drug addiction as a political tool,” the sources stated.
Expert sources involved in the survey process had strong negative reactions to many of the report’s findings.
“Being unmarried is not a risky behavior related to drug use. How did they come to this conclusion? It’s crazy!” said one informed source.
“NGOs, CBOs, and stakeholders are not in favor of punishment over treatment. NGOs changed the law to have drug abuse recognised as a disease,” they said.
New trends in drug use were excluded from the report’s focus as well.
“There are drugs that are not even mentioned in this survey coming in now, like meth, and most of the party drugs are available in the Maldives now, such as speed, ecstasy, and LSD.
“Older users are going for the heroin, while youth that are to use hashish oil are now also going for party drugs,” the sources explained.
More harm than good
The survey’s findings were “commendable”, said National Drug Agency Chairperson and State Minister for Health, Uza Lubna Mohammed Zahir Hussain, in the report’s foreword.
“The information provided by this survey without a doubt contributes to a better understanding of the nature and extent of the impact of drug abuse and this understanding will help decision makers to identify appropriate strategies to combat the problem of drug abuse in the Maldives,” Lubna stated.
However, the informed sources were distraught by the possible ramifications of the report’s “flawed” findings.
“Future plans, policies, and interventions will be designed based on this survey, which is not accurate. We know very clearly the results are wrong,” they said.
“Now for another 10 years there will not be enough funds for drug prevention and treatment. Donors will refer to the survey and think the Maldives doesn’t need any prevention or treatment programs, because the reported prevalence rate is so low,” said sources.
For example, expert sources explained there was only one rehabilitation center in the Maldives and that it is “inappropriate” for the Maldivian context, as well as understaffed. No experts in drug abuse treatment staffed the rehabilitation centre, the NDA or Health Ministry, they added.
“The NDA is running the rehab center, which employs a behavior-based program for heroin users. It doesn’t work for other types of addicts and there is no oversight. There are no beds and all the toilets are broken.
“There was a marijuana user sent for treatment. Every other day he tried to swim away from the rehab island and nearly drowned because he has mental problems. The program didn’t match his needs,” sources stated.
Sources explained there were numerous such problems which will now be greatly exaggerated by the survey’s “false” findings.
“Already there are next to no prevention efforts, supply reduction policies, or harm reduction programs; nothing comprehensive.
“Customs and the Maldives Port Authority have no container scanning machines and no drug-sniffing dogs. Anyone can bring drugs into the country,” they said.
“Meanwhile, government policies are changing almost every day. Whenever the government involves themselves in this sector they do harm, not good,” the sources lamented.
Sources claim that government policies under the last three administrations have been “ad hoc” and worsened drug abuse within the Maldives. Multiple international consultants have conducted drug use assessments and their recommendations are nearly identical, yet these recommendations are never enacted as policies, the sources stated.
Minister of Health Dr Ahmed Jamsheed Mohamed also voiced concern regarding drug abuse policies. During his speech at the survey’s launch, he stated that drug abuse was the “worst enemy of development” and based on the survey’s findings, it is necessary to “take a break, take stock, and strategise”.
The National Drug Use survey was conducted between 2011 and 2012, by the UNODC, NDA, INOVA Pvt Ltd, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), in partnership with five civil society organisations. The European Union and Swedish government provided US$2,180,200 in funding.
Download the National Drug Use Survey
Clarification: The National Drug Agency (NDA) has responded to this article in a letter, published on Minivan News. According the NDA, the US$170,000 budget for the survey was “a small amount of the overall budget of expenditure pertaining to the NDUS research”, and therefore the reference in this article’s prvious headline to the total funding of US$2 million was misleading. Minivan News has clarified the headline to avoid confusion.