A Drug Court tasked specifically with handling small-scale narcotics cases in place of the Criminal Court is expected to begin hearings this month as health authorities push ahead with wholesale reforms to national drug policy.
The Drug Court, established under the Drugs Bill approved by parliament in December 2011, has been welcomed by rehabilitation NGO Journey for focusing on punishing suppliers, while favouring mandatory treatment for users and addicts.
Despite being encouraged by the new court, the NGO claims that in a market where drugs can be purchased over a phone with less cost and time than is required to order a pizza, “serious concerns” remain over the lack of education and drug prevention measures in the country.
From a government perspective, the main focus of the Drugs Bill and the new court is to move away from taking a punitive approach against “small-scale” drug offences, while at the same time cracking down on the supply of illegal narcotics into the country. Part of these measures include reforming existing judicial services by replacing some duties of the Criminal Court with new judges trained in applying forensic evidence to drug cases.
Guidelines outlining the functioning of rehabilitation and treatment centres also required under the new Drugs Bill were expected to be gazetted by the end of last month. The recently formed National Drug agency (NDA) has said that once these guidelines are in place and staff have been appointed to oversee their work, the first Drug Court cases are then expected to be heard during the next month.
“The staff have already been trained on the assessments so if all goes well, the Drug Court can start soon, definitely over the next month,” an NDA spokesperson told Minivan News. The NDA was established on March 15 this year under requirements set out in the Drugs Bill.
Lubna Mohamed Zahir Hussain, Minister of State for Health and Family, told Minivan News that the new court, as well as its related regulations concerning narcotic abuse, represented long-needed changes to drug policy in the Maldives. She claimed this was particularly the case considering the role of the country’s criminal justice system in sentencing users and addicts.
Hussain, who also serves as an NDA board member, claimed that changes to the country’s judicial system were strongly needed to address concerns she held over a “lack of awareness” amongst some Criminal Court Judges over the use of forensic evidence.
“Under previous legislation, the role of forensics was not taken into account during a trial. Even in cases where a [suspect’s] urine test was shown to be positive for illegal drugs, if they continued to deny they were a drug user, courts in the past have taken the decision not to prosecute,” she said. “Criminal court judges have not been fully aware of forensic evidence. The Drug Court however will have five judges well trained to deal with these types of cases.”
Stipulations for the establishment of the Drug Court’s were provided in the Drugs Bill approved in December last year.
According to the Ministry of Family and Health, the new regulations represent a major shift in government policy over drug policy during the course of the last three years from a solely punitive approach to a more rehabilitative focus.
“We have identified harm reduction strategies and ways to try and minimise illness as a result of drug taking,” Hussain said. “The policy is to wean [users] off drugs.”
The Health Ministry has insisted that the new regulations provide distinct measures to assist drug abusers, while trying to crack down on larger-scale traffickers based in the Maldives and the wider South Asian region. The sale of narcotics like cannabis and heroin was seen by the NDA as a major part of the drugs trade in the Maldives.
Hussain said that “drug users” and “small time sellers” found to have less than three grams of illegal substances on their person would be sent to the new Drug Court under the bill.
Larger scale cases involving suspect drug dealers would still be sent to the Criminal Court under the rules, though Hussain believes the changes could still revolutionise drug abuse cases.
“These are new laws and new judges,” she added. “It will be very hard to deviate from the law in these courts.”
The Ministry of Health claims that the judges appointed to this new court would view the incarceration of suspected drug users as a “last resort” option when reviewing smaller time offences – a move designed to help overcome concerns about prison overcrowding.
State Minister Hussain added that drug users wishing to be sent to the Drug Court instead of the Criminal Court would need them to admit they had been using narcotics – a decision that would require them to undertake mandatory rehabilitation.
The NDA board insisted that it would ultimately be for the Prosecutor General to decide on which cases would be put before the new drug court.
However, Hussain claimed that prisoners already being held in custody for previous drug offences could apply to have their cases appealed through the new judicial body. The NDA has said it can assist prisoners with technical assistance as part of the Drug Court’s appeals process against drug charges.
Hussain cautioned that the NDA did have some concerns over the board’s present capacity to assess previous cases alongside the Drug Court’s current workload.
She claimed that addressing previous cases against suspected drug users would nonetheless be vital in addressing issues of overcrowding in the country’s prisons system.
Last year, a report jointly conducted by the government of former President Mohamed Nasheed and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) claimed that the country’s prison population could be cut by up to two-thirds by decriminalising the offence of drug usage and proposing mandatory rehabilitation in its place.
State Minsiter Hussain claimed that under these new laws, the NDA was now equipped to rehabilitate prisoners found guilty of minor drug offences – something that had not been possible through the prison service previously.
“Seventy percent of prisoners currently being held in jails on drug offences have never been given treatment whilst they are incarcerated,” she claimed.
Under the previous government, a rehabilitation programme called Second Chance was instigated to try and expedite the re-integration of former inmates incarcerated for minor drug offences back into society.
However following the controversial resignation of former President Nasheed in February, the Second Chance scheme was closed down a month later after new Home Minister Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed alleged it had been releasing criminals under “political influence”.
The “uncontrolled release of criminals” over the recent years had threatened the public safety, Jameel announced following the decision.
The charges were vehemently denied at the time by the programme’s manager, who claimed that the majority of the country’s prison population were young people incarcerated for small drug offences leading to them face “long jail terms that were destroying their lives”.
The Second Chance programme’s project manager additionally claimed that the Maldives’ Parole and Clemency board did not have the required technical expertise to oversee efforts to rehabilitate prisoners.
State Minister Hussain believed that recent amendments to national drug laws would compensate for the loss of such a programme.
“The essence of the Second Chance programme is seen in the new drug law,” she said.
Transfer of Power
Since the government of President Mohamed Waheed Hassan came to power under controversial circumstances on February 7, the Health Ministry said that the work related to the drug act had not been significantly impacted.
The Drugs Bill, which was formulated and approved under the previous administration was continuing without significant change, including the staff working on the project, State Minister Hussain claimed.
The Health Ministry noted that whilst serving as vice-president under Mohamed Nasheed, Dr Waheed was himself put at the centre of attempts to overhaul and modernise drug treatment and rehabilitation.
Hussain therefore claimed the ministry had been able to continue its work unaffected by the transfer of power and the political upheaval that has resulted from allegations and counter allegations over the legitimacy of the present administration.
Minister of State Hussain added that the regulations that were devised in collaboration with Dr Waheed afforded a much wider number of powers – not to mention much “greater responsibility” – for the Health Ministry’s role in drug abuse prevention.
“Perhaps the most important aspect of these laws is that the NDA has been granted the authority to offer Methadone Maintenance Treatment (MMT),” she added.
MMT is a method of opiate replacement therapy used by health authorities around the world to try and help intravenous drugs users combat addiction by supplying a controlled delivery of methadone over a set period of time.
As part of the additional responsibilities granted to the NDA under the new Drugs Bill, the controlled delivery of methadone to try to combat addiction was something Hussain believed there would be widespread public support for as part of the reforms.
“This law is very much needed. If these regulations were in place in the 1990’s, I do not think we would have the number of [drug] users that we now have today,” she said.
However, Hussain claimed using substances like methadone for treating and rehabilitating addicts should not be seen as controversial – even among more religiously conservative elements of the Maldives’ Islamic society.
The NDA has said that it therefore remained focused on finding the best potential methods for treatment rather than consulting with other government ministries over whether such amendments would have their approval
“Methadone is one of the basic treatments used around the world in terms of opiate replacement therapy,” she said. “I feel there will be national support for these treatments as long as there is discipline. As long as there are not drug addicts out on the streets.”
Beside from garnering public support, the NDA said that it was now looking to establish a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with police to collaborate in areas such as the operation of a remand centre to allow detoxification to be conducted with suspected drug users and addicts.
Hussain said that the need to ensure the security of staff within such a centre, which under the Drugs Bill is required to be established, meant that police were ideally suited to assist as partners with the scheme.
“In regards to the remand centre we would like to have an MOU with the prison service to do a joint service this has been discussed at a intermediate stage,” she said. “A remand centre has to be opened for detoxification in the future. It would be ideal to be able to utilise existing security available at the country’s prisons for this.”
Outside the treatment aspect of the government’s drug policy, fellow NDA board member Faathih Ali told Minivan News that there has been a huge increase in the supply of drugs last six months. This increase was said to include more refined forms of heroin as well as the “brown sugar” variant of the drug being made available to Maldivians.
Faathih, whose work is linked to the Maldivian Customs Service, claimed that drug prices had dropped during a period of political uncertainty across the nation – particularly from December onwards.
He said that the growing influence of Pakistan’s drug cartels in the country were suspected as being responsible for the majority of the supply surge.
“Three years back, we had seized huge amounts of heroin originating in Pakistan,” Faathih said. “However, these kind of networks require intelligence to break down. While we have in the past signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Indian customs agencies, though we now wish to do the same with Pakistan.”
Faathih added that while pursuing treatment and rehabilitation for small time drug users based in the country, the Criminal Court needed to ensure that dealers were being “subjected to the law”.
Ali Adyb of the Journey NGO, which runs a drop in centre in Male’ as well as outreach programmes across the country’s many atolls, concurred that the issue of drug supply into the country had been a major concern of late.
“Buy four pieces… get one free”
Adyb told Minivan News that following a visit to Addu Atoll in March, he found a very sophisticated selling network that allows users to purchase drugs through ‘supermarket style’ special offers.
“If you were buying four pieces, you can get one free. It’s like going to (US retail giant) Wal-Mart,” he observed.
Even in the capital of Male’, the Journey spokesperson said there were worrying parallels between purchasing narotics and the convenience of takeaway food.
“A telephone is all you need to get drugs these days. It’s like calling for a pizza, but with a pizza you would have to wait forty minutes to receive it,” he said. “You can have drugs in minutes [in Male’].”
Adyb accepted that the NDA’s work to establish a Drug Court was ultimately a “huge step forward” in trying to help drug users and addicts break the cycle of addiction that they found themselves in.
From Journey’s perspective, Adyb said he believed that the policy of criminalising drug users had failed, in part, because of a failure to segregate prisoners convicted of petty theft with more serious crimes.
“We are aware of people who have actually become addicted to drugs whilst in jail here,” he said.
Journey stressed that even for convicted addicts who were no longer being held in the country’s prison system, the stigma of having a criminal record for using narcotics led even qualified people to struggle to find a job.
According to Adyb, the NGO had been made aware of several cases where employees, sometimes in more menial fields of work, had offered reduced wages to workers previously found to have been addicts.
Adyb said he was concerned at an ongoing failure to provide measures to prevent young people from turning to drugs in the first place, though he welcomed the pledges of successive governments.
“We need to work with communities and build a generation of young people who can simply say no,” he said. “We are therefore trying to advocate for drug prevention measures right now. As soon as the [Drugs Bill] is settled, addicts needing rehab and treatment will be getting support. But we believe that drug education is also needed to be part of the school curriculum. We are seeing school leavers going straight into drug addiction and no effort is being made to prevent them from choosing such a life.”
According to Journey’s estimates, about 60 percent of the Maldives population come into contact with drugs at least once in their life. Pointing to a 2006 survey of 181 addicts in the country, Adyb said 50 percent of respondents claimed to have taken up drug use as a result of peer pressure.
The exact scale of drug abuse in the country has never been fully studied, though the Ministry of Health is currently undertaking a “scientifically robust national survey” designed to try and ascertain the habits of Maldivians aged between 15 to 64.
United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC), the All Indian Institute and the European Union are providing funding and expertise, and 13 local NGOs are assisting the project, particularly within island communities.
Originally scheduled for release in February, the NDA has said that the findings were still presently being studied and put together by the various stakeholders. An NDA spokesperson said it anticipated the report’s release later this year.
Scale of the problem
With the findings yet to be completed, Adyb said that it was still clear that Maldivians were growing up in an environment where they were not being given the social skills to resist the temptation to turn to drugs – a development compounded by the “high availability” of narcotics in the country.
“No one is being brought up in the country with the skills to say no. [Journey] has been to all atolls in the country for prevention programmes and we see people, including teachers, the government and parents, lacking an understanding of what drug addiction is,” he said.
Adyb claimed that a failure in society to address drug problems and accept the scale of addiction within communities had made any possibility of dialogue concerning the issue into a taboo. He believed that both authorities and families were happier to ignore drug addiction rather than address the potential causes.
“You have a situation where parents believe that their own children are better informed about drugs than they are, but these parents don’t realise the power they have. A parent explaining the dangers of drug abuse is one of the most powerful prevention measures for a young child,” he said.
“If we don’t focus on prevention, who is going to run the country in the future. When parents and teachers refuse to talk about drugs, the first messages young people receive will no doubt be negative ones from peers encouraging them to try such illegal substances. “
Adyb added that part of the problem was a wider national failure to understand addiction as a form of illness.
“Our communities are in denial and do not understand the social realities of addiction. Addicts will often steal and rob to fund their lifestyle, but what people don’t know is that it is not the person, it is the drugs driving them to do it,” he claimed.
Aside from raising awareness in society of the impacts of addiction on people, Adyb said he also wanted to see more work done to raise awareness among police of dealing with addicts and users.
While Journey believed that police have been helpful in assisting the NGO with its outreach programmes, Adyb claimed that the wider Maldives Police Service required a better understanding of dealing with addicts and the signs of a drug user experiencing withdrawals.
“We have had sessions with police about this, but there needs to be consistency. Police need to be educated about addicts, otherwise this adds to the culture of denial here,” he said.
As health authorities have this year raised concerns over the increase of “high risk behaviour” potentially driving the rate of Sexually Transmitted Infections and HIV, Adyb claimed that it was time to begin discussing issues related to sex and drug abuse with young people in the nation.
“People in the Maldives are marrying and dying much later these days, they are having more sexual partners and at a younger age, sometimes in their early teens,” he said. “If we don’t talk about sex and drug education, how do we tackle concerns with them? We should start educating at a much earlier age. At present we are only talking to 18 year olds about drugs and it is often too late by then.”
In looking to the future of combating addiction and drug abuse in the Maldives, Journey said it believed that the current political uncertainty experienced in the Maldives since February’s transfer of power had not helped factors influencing people turning to illegal drugs.
However, in regards to the NGO’s own work, Journey said that since its founding back in 2005 under the autocratic rule of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, it had been encouraged by the support afforded to it by successive authorities.
“We have been working with various governments in the work we do. For instance we would not be able to afford the rent for our drop-in centre (based on Alikilegefaanumagu in Male’) without the support of the state since 2005. We do not choose sides [politically],” added Adyb. “The government has accepted our work far better than the general public has.”