Drug addiction: It is a health concern

If the government really wants to control drug abuse, then the control mechanism should be transferred from the Home Ministry to the Health Ministry, as it is a health concern and cannot be controlled by harsh punishment

First a story a lot of families can relate to… a normal middle class family finds out that their child is a drug addict. Naturally, the family is alarmed and in distress. The family does what any respectable family would do – seek a rehabilitation centre. But the family finds out that the fee is nowhere close to what they can afford. Now the question is, what are they to do?

According to recent data, about 150,000 people are abusing drugs in Nepal, among whom 52 per cent are in the age group 15-24 years. The number of drug users has, in fact, doubled since 2007.

Nepal is considered a transit point for drug dealers. Places like Sarlahi, Rupandehi, Birgunj and Bhairahawa along the Tarai belt are said to be the transit points. Hard drugs like cocaine, opium and heroin are easily available in Nepal. Rallies, awareness programmes, workshops and street dramas are being regularly held to create awareness among the youth against drug abuse. But the change is not visible, and the government seems to be doing little, distracted as it is by other more demanding things.

More often than not, those who are addicted to drugs did not choose that path consciously. In need of drugs, the abusers can become violent. So drug invites crimes. It is said that drug addicts commit more than 50 million crimes a year in the world. A world-famous Buddhist monk of the Theravada tradition, Bhikkhu Bodhi, said, “Under the influence of intoxicants, a man who might otherwise be restrained can lose self-control, become heedless and engage in killing, stealing, adultery and lying”. Abstinence from intoxicants is prescribed on the grounds that it is essential for the self-protection of the individual and for establishing the well-being of family and society. For whatever reason they took drugs, it seems that once a person is addicted, they cannot get back to becoming normal without help.

In most cases, the family and society abandon those addicted to drugs when they need them most. The government considers them criminals and punishes them. The laws for supporting the drug abusers are not being executed. The government needs to take responsibility for its troubled population and have constructive and concrete plans to curb this epidemic. The drug abusers need to be seen as diseased rather than criminals.

Most of the rehabilitation centres in Nepal are run by the private sector, and the average charge for complete recovery is beyond the average income of a Nepali. Here lies the fault of our system. We failed to control the easy availability of drugs, we failed to save our youth from the misuse of drugs, and now we are miserably failing to provide them rehabilitation. An anti-drug activist, Chuck Rosenberg, had said, “Treatment against possession of drugs shouldn’t be more damaging than the drug itself.” But the condition in our country contradicts this theory. Money seems to appear as a hindrance for youth to get back to the normal life they deserve. Due to this problem, the youth, his family and the whole nation has to suffer. There are limited rehabilitation centres in Nepal. Villages are especially deprived of such provisions. Re-establishing youth in the society should be the first duty of the family. Should this fail, the government has the responsibility to take over.

Nepal’s Narcotic Drug Control Act of 1976 was based on the U.S. Narcotic Drug Control Act. With the passage of time, the US, however, recognised narcotic control as a health concern, but sadly, we are not ready to see this as a health problem and trying to control it with harsh punishment.

If the government really wants to control drug abuse, then the control mechanism should be transferred from the Home Ministry to the Health Ministry. Most of the law enforcement agencies and their officials take pride in declaring that they have very stringent control measures against drugs. Many law enforcement offices across the world love to use the phrase “war against drugs”.  These words sound very catchy and attractive to those who hear them. But what it is and how it is to be achieved pose serious questions. Drug abuse is one of those cases where the criminal is the victim.

So what can be done?

First of all, the government should come up with a clear vision with a distinct mission within a fixed time frame to build a strong national drug policy. We need a policy that covers all the areas of drugs, from health, education to crime. The policy must be able to create a balance between family care, community mobilisation and rehabilitation.

There are methods that can help implement this policy. A friendly and supportive environment must be created for youth in school, family and society in order to protect them from drugs. There must be effective implementation of the plans, policies, programmes and laws that are already there to control the production, sale and trafficking of prohibited drugs. Making the executioners accountable for the result is essential.

Effective services and programmes will have to be developed for treatment, behaviour change and rehabilitation support to the drug addicts in place of punishment, discrimination and criminalisation. They should receive sympathy and social support to come out of their addiction and live a normal life. Such services should also be juvenile and women-friendly to increase their access.