Failure to pass drug bill hampering drug user rehabilitation efforts

Amidst the 2011 Maldives budget and a host of other laws waiting to be passed in the Majlis, a bill outlining new policies on drug enforcement remains a key concern for one Male’ based NGO , which has just launched what it claims is a first-of-its-kind drop in centre for recovering addicts in the country.

“In the 1990’s in every Male’ household there was a probably an addict,” claimed Mohamed Shuaib, a reformed drug user and vice chairperson of Journey, a Maldivian NGO.  “We didn’t know of the consequences [of drug abuse] at the time.”

Shuaib added that although the Maldives’ relationship with drugs was not as intense as it appeared to be a few decades previously, the abuse of heroin – and to a lesser extent alcohol and cannabis – remained serious problems for Maldivians.

Journey, which was started in 2005 by former addicts looking to provide support and possible rehabilitation for drug users, said that despite positive government support, public attitudes and a failure to pass new laws relating to drug offences remained major concerns in trying to prevent drug abuse and rehabilitate addicts.

Shuaib told Minivan News that the official opening of a drop-in centre operated by the charity on November 29, with support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Global Fund, reflected improving fortunes in the country for drug users looking to kick possible addiction.

The idea behind the drop-in programme is to try and give recovering addicts a safe place to not just come and hang out, but to also seek counselling and training once they have undergone detox, according to Journey.  The programme extends a growing number of services that the NGO said it has provided over the last five years to recovering addicts; like outreach programmes across Male’ and the wider atolls where Journey tries to consult directly with addicts to try and help them seek rehabilitation.

The opening of the new drop-in centre, which also coincides within the same month of Journey’s fifth anniversary of coming into operation, was attended by President Mohamed Nasheed who claimed that reducing drug abuse was a top priority for his government.  By pursuing a society-wide approach to tackling drug abuse, the president added that he was confident of a further crackdown on narcotics abuse.

“I believe we can do this. I believe we have the capacity. I believe our youths can recover from this,” he added.

Shuaib said that Journey was generally encouraged by the government’s work and focus in regards to rehabilitating drug users, though he said that abuse of heroin – and to a lesser extent alcohol and cannabis – remained serious problems for Maldivians.

“The current government is trying, they have formed committees with parents and businesses to consult on drug policy and they are also working closely with us,’ he added.

Despite the support seemingly offered by president Nasheed, Shuaib said that the continued wait for a new drug bill to be passed in the Majlis was a source of frustration for the NGO.

According to Shuaib, current regulations on drugs in the country have failed to sufficiently differentiate between the types of drugs being used as well as the amounts found on a person.

In September, Minivan News reported how Maldivian reggae artist Haisham Mohamed Rasheed had been sentenced to ten years for use and possession of less than one gram of cannabis.  Haisham, of Maafannu Loha, was arrested with a bag containing the illegal narcotics while in a resort to perform a live music show.

Ahmed Nazim, a fellow member of Journey’s staff, added that in certain situations, the current legislation meant that someone caught smoking drugs like heroin could receive five years imprisonment for every different compound contained in the drug.

Shuaib said he believed that current deadlock in parliament, which has hampered a wide number of bills alongside cabinet appointees and next year’s budget, was the main obstacles to passing new regulations on drug abuse.  The Vice Chairperson added that he expected and hoped the majority of parliament would eventually lend their support to new laws on drugs when they came to be passed.

Besides political argument, Shuaib claimed that religious teachings has generally shaped beliefs in society making the issue of discussing and trying to confront drug addiction difficult for many people.  The Vice Chairperson accepted that many Maldivians might not see addiction as an illness or affliction, but rather a personal weakness, it was an issue he added, “about perception.”

Beyond rehabilitation, preventing future cases of drug addiction through education is seen as another important focus of the work Journey carries out.  To this end, Shuaib said that the NGO is regularly travelling to schools in Male’ and many islands across the country to try and outline the potential dangers of addiction.  Journey claims that effective drug education can be very difficult though particularly young people who fall into drugs as part of gangs.  Beyond becoming addicts, the NGO claimed that gang members were also being encouraged to sell narcotics themselves, creating a lucrative and attractive career path for young people with little to do in crowded streets.

“In certain cases, a parent may suspect involvement in dealing drugs, but they fail to challenge a lifestyle that pays,” added Shuaib.

In relation to factors driving Maldivians to drugs, or even the type of people susceptible to addiction, whether in the latest fashions or more conservative wear, the Vice Chairperson said that Maldivians of all walks of life were seen as being vulnerable to addiction.

One recovering addict at the drop-in centre suggested that he had first turned to drugs after separating from a former girlfriend, when a friend suggested drugs may be more than an adequate cure for the pain.

Some 12 years later, when asked by Minivan News if he thought schemes like the drop-in centre could work to help Maldivian addicts, he hesitated before optimistically replying “I think so.”