Women urge drastic action from president on drugs

A women’s group campaigning against drug abuse has handed the government a petition urging President Abdulla Yameen to prioritise the Maldives’ drug crisis.

The Society for Women Against Drugs collected 359 signatures calling on the president to improve the quality of drug rehabilitation care, and to launch medical care for addicts suffering from withdrawal symptoms in police custody.

“Successive governments have attempted to address the problem of drugs, but they are not doing enough and we don’t see politicians prioritizing the issue,” said the group’s chairperson Fathimath Afiya after handing over the petition last week.

According to a 2012 UN report, there are 7,496 drug addicts in the Maldives. However, critics say the true figure is much higher.

Meanwhile, health advocacy groups have expressed concern over a high risk of HIV spreading among an unmonitored population of injecting drug users.

President Yameen in February acknowledged that changes were needed in the drug rehabilitation system, but the cabinet in March discussed mechanisms to decrease state expenditure on drug care centres.

Home Minister Umar Naseer last year pledged to prioritize drug trafficking and last month brought in a sniffer dog squad.

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Comment: Drug abuse prevention saves lives and cuts costs

It is unacceptable for us to think that we can ignore the drug problem and it will just go away.

We are a country still living in deep denial about drug use by youth.

Journey believes that the three sentences destroying youth – more than any other sentences known to man – are, “Not my child, not in our school, not in my island.”

Today we cannot afford to ignore this problem or assume it is not going on in our households, our schools and our communities. We have yet to rid our homes, schools and communities of drugs.

Journey is not stating that nothing has been accomplished. Rather, we need to have a very critical look at what we have done to oppose drug abuse in the past and reevaluate our steps. We need to leave behind our ideologies about what works in theory and instead accept the evidence-based methods that have made a positive impact in other parts of the world.

Our focus needs to shift from simply strengthening treatment to implementing a strong evidence-based prevention strategy. But unfortunately we are living in a country where prevention is still not a top priority, even though evidence proves that every 100 MVR (US$ 6.55) spent on prevention saves 1,000 MVR (US$65.49) on treatment.

Research shows preventing drug use before it begins is the most cost-effective, common-sense approach to promote safe and healthy communities. Preventing drug abuse, particularly by injecting drug abusers, reduces the rate of HIV transmission through unsterilised needles creating safer homes and communities. Simply put, drug abuse prevention save lives and cuts costs.

When we choose to ignore the drug problem in the Maldives, we continue to lose children (and adults), which Journey finds unacceptable. The ongoing drug crisis in the Maldives has taken many years to develop, and there is no quick fix, but ignoring [the crisis and failing] to identify and intervene is a serious problem. Scientific research proves drug addiction to be a progressive disease which starts during early adolescence.

We all want our children to grow up to be honest, successful and healthy adults who make valuable contributions to our society. But sadly, all of this could be put at risk when young people are offered drugs before they are mature enough to grasp the magnitude of the consequences of their actions. It saddens Journey to see people suffering because of the results of these actions.

Journey is very concerned about the damage and pain drugs cause individuals, families, communities and it’s an issue we consider significant. That is why our new evidence-based universal prevention program “RISE” will place particular emphasis on educating Maldivians, especially young people and their parents, about the negative health and other effects of drug abuse, while also enhancing their skills to deal effectively with issues that may instigate drug abuse.

Today’s youth are in desperate need of positive role models. We all must look at our own actions and ask ourselves if this is what we want our children to follow.

It isn’t an easy task and it is going to take time to accomplish what we need to for our children.

We believe our children deserve nothing less. It’s also our firm belief that together we can help young people make healthy choices. Let us encourage them to stay alert, engaged and to grasp every opportunity that will help make them build a nation free from drugs.

Thank you.

Journey is a Male’ based NGO formed by group of Maldivian recovering addicts with a mission to help other addicts to maintain their recovery and to raise public awareness on drug addiction and its related issues.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]

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Comment: On the ‘Vaudhuge Dhathuru’ campaign trail

I spent the past two weeks traveling with the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) on its Vaudhuge Dhathuru (‘Journey of Pledges’) campaign, all the way from Kolamaafushi Island in Gaaf Alif Atoll to Addu City. We visited more than 20 islands, including Addu City.

I was born and raised in the capital city of Male’. I am 19 years-old, but except for brief vacations with my family I have not traveled very much in the Maldives. Hence, I have not been able to experience “island life” and by this I do not mean the white sandy beaches or crystal clear waters of the Maldivian islands, but the daily lives of the residents who spend their whole lives on these isolated islands.

The trip was an absolute adventure; one that made me realise my own privilege in growing up in Male’, and the huge discrepancies between the urban centers and the rural islands. I have lived all my life in a bubble created by my parents. Can you believe I’ve never had to make my own bed? To live in a kanneli dhoni for 12 days was a huge challenge for me.

I was on Reyva Dhoni, known as ‘Media Odi’, along with 52 others. Everyone else wanted to be on Reyva Dhoani. We had all the photographers, media and the young and energetic ‘Yellow Force’ on board, so you can imagine how much fun it was. And really, you could actually see how prepared MDP was for this trip. They had thought of everything; there was a kitchen boat that came along with us, and a small launch, in case we may had a need for it.

Meals were prepared and we’d enjoy them in the middle of the ocean. There would always be someone singing a classic bodu beru song, or at times, a couple of guys getting together for Lava Baazee. It was never silent, it was so happening, and it would always turn out to be something exciting. As for the toilet arrangements, there was one toilet and usually 52 people on board, so you do the math. It was so small, you wouldn’t believe. Someone would always be knocking on the door, and as you can guess, it was always an emergency.

I would very much like to tell you about the first 24 hours of the trip. We left Male’ at around 5:00PM and it soon got dark. And all of a sudden, without warning, out of nowhere the boat started to wobble and it suddenly hit me, I’m going to have to stay put for 22 hours or perhaps even longer.

I started to miss my family and my bed… and mostly the toilet. I thought to myself, ‘I couldn’t survive in this place, why the hell did I even come…’ I was on the rooftop all night, inside my sleeping bag, because it was so cold, trying so hard not to puke (you don’t want to be the one who pukes, believe me!). I was not able to lift my head, because I didn’t want to pop like a puke-filled balloon.

After 22 hours we arrived at our first stop, Kolamaafushi Island in Gaaf Alif Atoll. I got myself together and took a shower, changed my clothes and set foot on the harbour, and the first thing I saw was the beautiful monument that was built for fishermen’s day.

On top there was a banner stating: ‘Welcome to the first democratically-elected President, Mohamed Nasheed’.

After become acquainted with the friendly, welcoming people of Kolamaafushi, MDP Youth Wing Leader Aminath Shauna and I went to the island’s MDP office, and we arranged our policy workshop. A handful of people joined us for the workshop, mostly people who’ve previously worked in the island’s health post or utilities company, people who’ve lost their jobs due to political reasons.

I was really glad to see a couple of elders and single mothers in this small crowd, it was what you would call ‘A little bit of everything.’ Shauna explained to them what the MDP had achieved in government during the past three years, and how many lives have been changed over the few years we were able to serve in government. For instance, in Kolamaafushi alone 889 people were covered by some sort of social protection program, and Shauna explained that Nasheed’s administration had spent about 4.2 million rufiya (US$272,000) for that.

That was just Kolamaafushi. We discussed housing projects, infrastructure and education, we were told by someone from the group that the pass percentage had increased to 62 percent in 2011, which I thought was remarkable. And it elated me to see how fired up they were and how determined they were to increase the pass percentage to even higher in the coming years.

When Shauna concluded her presentation, the islanders began to express their thoughts. They told us they haven’t seen a single laari of the ‘Disability & Single Parent’ benefit for the past three months. They said they had not been able to purchase medicine from the local pharmacy. The island’s Women’s Development Committee had set up the pharmacy, but the health corporation acquired the place and had decided to stop services.

They expressed anger at having to travel to a neighboring island for shopping and for medicine. I thought to myself, why are they complaining about that? The neighboring island isn’t that far, and then there’s the nation-wide state transport system, introduced by the MDP during President Nasheed’s administration. But then I got a ‘slap in the face’ from the locals: apparently the state transport service has not been consistent at all. What really made me upset was seeing so many young people without a job or education. I thought to myself, the ‘Skill [Hunaru] program’ could have changed the lives of a few of these youngsters, maybe a whole bunch in five years.

That day I realised it is not that these kids want to live off their parents. They want to earn a honest living. They just want opportunity, for someone to believe in them and to give them the chance, to change their lives. Someone to take an interest in them, someone or even a program to drive them to where they need to be.

After hearing all that, it suddenly didn’t matter that I had to shower in a small cube, or that I had to sleep on a mat most nights. It was a small price to pay to see what I saw in person, and of course the islands were so beautiful. It is true what Anni said, even if you’ve lived your whole life here, you can’t fail to be impressed by the beauty of these islands.

The trip made me realise that there’s so much we could do to change the lives of the hopeful people of this country, from the youngster who has just finished his A-levels to the diabetic single mother with three kids who needs constant medication.

Waheed and the government coalition boast about making tough decisions, but never took them. They seem to lack the confidence and guts to take risks. I personally believe we were on the right track.

It was so comforting to learn that the things that mattered the most for the people of these islands were health care, transport, social security, and anything that would help their daily lives. I believe that these were the kind of real, concrete, lasting changes President Mohamed Nasheed and MDP government brought, and I am convinced that they are the kind of radical changes that Kolamaafushi and the rest of the country desperately needs.

We must link the great divides in this country – and where better to start than the gap between the islands and the capital?

I have learned a lot. I had no idea what I was getting into, but I’m so glad that I went.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]

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Drug Court ushering new era in Maldives drug battle

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.

Judicial considerations

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.

Punitive approach

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.”

“Last resort”

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.

“Second chance”

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.”

Supply chain

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.

Prevention fears

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.”

Taking sides

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.”

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“Overdue” national drug survey active across Maldives

The first “scientifically robust national survey” of drug use in the Maldives is kicking off with training for employees and volunteers this week. The survey was contracted by national research organisation Inova Pvt Ltd, in partnership with the Ministry of Health and Family.

The survey examines the drug use habits of Maldivians ages 15 to 64, and is a contributing factor of the program, “Strengthening the National response to Combat Drug Abuse in the Maldives”, which began in July under the remit of the United Nations (UN) and the Maldivian government.

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.

International Project Coordinator for UNODC, Sarah Waller, said the survey would add structure to the Maldivian government’s sparse drug policy.

“The survey should generate a better understanding of where treatment gaps in the community are, in order for the government and civil society to target appropriate evidence-based treatment and interventions in their drug-treatment planning. At the moment, it’s a bit of a guess how services are set up. This will enable to the government to provide a much more targeted response to the issue.”

The survey is being conducted according to two methods.

On islands, ‘enumerators’ employed by Inova will gather and process data by conducting household interviews.

Waller said many enumerators come from the recovering community, and staff from Journey are providing specific training to those who have little to no experience in drug use and abuse.

“Many have likely never interacted in the past with drug users. The first few days of training are about building awareness and sensitisation around drug users, around the Maldives’ treatment systems, and around the patterns and trends of drug abuse here,” Waller said.

Another method will be applied on Male’. Volunteer ‘respondents’ will serve as the middle man, gathering survey participants from Male’s more dense and urban community and connecting with them enumerators.

“The methodology for Male’ is quite different from what is given out on the islands,” said Waller. “The method, Respondent Driven Sampling (RDS), is more appropriate to the community on Male’. This approach identifies initial seeds in the community, and those seeds generate additional seeds. So you’re really generating responses through one initial seed.”

Respondents will be rewarded with coupons according to their efforts gathering participants. Waller emphasised that the compensation had been carefully designed to protect the survey’s validity.

“The evidence base suggests that incentivizing the driving of seeds to identify more individauls to take part in the study can enable a much more representative and accurate sample. When it comes to incentivizing recovering or abusive populations, there are ethics that need to be considered regarding that incentive. In particular with doing research amongs drug users, there have to be ethics whereby monetary incentives aren’t sufficient enough to encourage the workers to use them on drugs.”

Minivan News spoke to Journey volunteer member Imlaaq Shareef about the survey’s methods.

“It’s an advanced form of snowballing. First, the respondents will bring one or two and give a reward, maybe three coupons. Then they’ll bring another three addicts, and get a reward for that. So from one respondent the team will get more and more samples,” said Shareef.

When asked if the survey was likely to be accurate, Shareef doubted that all participants would initially be honest.

“But in the survey there are a lot of recovering addicts who are volunteering, and they’ll be able to identify the community here,” Shareef observed. “This is a small place, so, even the person who is doing drugs the most secretively somehow some people will know about it. So we can reach for them. I think by this survey, we can get a good estimate.”

In Shareef’s opinion, the survey is overdue.

“It should have been done earlier. Day by day, the number of IV users is getting high, and drug users are getting high, the number of sex workers are increasing. And in most cases, sex workers are addicts because it’s the easiest way for a girl addict to get money to buy her drugs. There is no choice for these girls, and most do not enjoy it,” said Shareef.

In addition to having an information shortage, the Maldives is struggling to plug the gaps between drug rehabilitation and law enforcement.

“There are very few rehabilitation service providers here,” said Shareef. “The problem is, once people get out of rehab they have to sign up for community service and stay here for a year or so. If they relapse during that period, it’s a big case. They might end up in court or jail. So most people are afraid of taking a treatment, because of the loopholes in the law.”

Shareef complained that a drug reform bill has been stalled in Parliament.

“Even very recently, at Journey, we put out a petition that was signed by nearly 8,000 people and sent it to the Majlis to pass the drug bill. But they don’t give a damn about it. They are just concerned about the Rf20,000 they are getting. I wonder what kind of risk they are taking,” said Shareef.

Parliament accepted the bill in March 2010 and sent the legislation to committee for further review.

Shareef said the bill would significantly improve drug addicts’ recovery process.

“A user should never end up in jail. It has been scientifically proven that addiction is a chronic brain disease. So why should they end up in jail? It’s a big problem,” Shareef said.

Waller said the survey could provide a base line for developing a sufficient drug management infrastructure.

“The data can assist government in how and where to apply the information, and what communities need in terms of service. There is certainly an affinity between the two,” she said.

The project’s final report is due for release in February 2012.

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Addicts, dealers and NGOs: dealing with drugs in the Maldives

A coalition of local NGOs conducted a workshop yesterday to review new drug laws proposed by the government.

Ahmed Adam, chairperson of drugs NGO Journey, said drug abuse was a “national issue” that urgently required a solution.

”We wish the MPs would cooperate with us hope they do not think this bill was politically motivated,” he said.

A number of participants at the workshop expressed concern about the difficulty they had reaching MPs. Adam said MPs had not even attended meetings to discuss the bill despite numerous invitations.

Among the NGOs represented at the workshop were Journey, Hand to Hand, Maldivian Detainee Network and Transparency Maldives.

History of drug use

Adam, a recovered drug addict, spoke briefly about the history of drug use in the Maldives.

Historical documents that reveal travellers who visited to the Maldives in the 16th century observed opium being used inside the palace, he said.

Moreover, in the 18th century, Indian traders introduced cannabis to the country.

”In 1972, with the advent of tourism in the country, most people started smoking grass,” he said.

The government was only alerted to what was happening much later, he added.

Adam said ‘brown sugar’, the low-grade heroin that is prevalent in the country, was introduced after the mass arrests of marijuana users in the early 90s.

A drug centre was established for the first time in the Maldives in 1997.

NGOs discussion

The discussions at the workshop focused on both the reasons why people get hooked on drugs and methods of prevention.

NGOs were divided into four groups and together discussed the drug epidemic and ways to solve it.

Among the factors identified that drove people to drug use were parental neglect, congestion and lack of privacy and space at home that draws children out to streets, peer pressure, lifestyle decisions as well as lack of job opportunities and proper role models.

The NGOs argued in favour of categorisation of drugs in the bill and called for the introduction of different methods and models for treatment apart from the existing therapeutic community (TC) model.

TC was not adequate for all types of drug addicts, they insisted.

While drug smuggling could be prevented by imposing penalties on customs officials suspected of accepting bribes, higher penalties should be imposed on convicted drug dealers, they agreed.

Drug traffickers and money they earn

Minivan News spoke anonymously to an individual who divulged information on drug trafficking in the Maldives.

He claimed that he sold drugs because he felt “pity for the sick people” [drug addicts] and did not want “to isolate them from society.”

He added that he did not face “any trouble” in attracting customers.

”If we sell good quality stuff to one person, he will go and tell his friends that we have good stuff and they also will start buying from us,” he said.

He claimed to earn “at least Rf15,000 every day” (US$1167) selling drugs, approximately Rf465,000 per month (US$36,186).

”Everyday one person will buy at least three to five packets, sometimes people from the islands come and buy 40 packets also,” he said, claiming that each 0.03 gram packet (of brown sugar) cost Rf100.

Almost one or two kilograms were smuggled into the country at a time, he explained.

The rise in crime was because drug addicts needed to feed their addiction, he said.

“All gangs are operated by people and money. Gangs earn money by selling drugs. If someone gets stabbed also the gangs would provide them with medication and financial assistance.”

Moreover, he said, “gangsters” would not have any source of income without dealing drugs.

“Real drug dealers” meanwhile, do not use drugs themselves, he said. The drug of choice for Maldivian youth was brown sugar, he added.

“There’s also hash oil, ‘white stuff’ and Charas [resin from the hemp plant] also in the market.”

While more treatment facilities and job opportunities should be offered to combat drug addiction, he said, ”drug dealers should be stopped first, but [the government] can never do that. Drug dealers are assisted by high-profile people in the country,” he said.

“First, they should figure out who they are and stop them, then come after the drug dealers. Then there will be no drug abusers in the country.”

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