Behind the ‘feel good’ image of the Maldives lurks the horrendous problem of drug abuse among youth. The government is taking key measures to deal with this sticky situation.
The Maldives, known as a holiday haven, is grappling with a growing problem. Beyond the green palms and turquoise pools of this tropical tourists’ paradise lurks the ugly problem of drug addiction among the youth.
The World Drug Report 2011 by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released in June this year puts 210 million people aged between 15 to 64 years of age – almost five per cent of the world’s population – to have tried illegal drugs or other “illicit” substances at least once during 2010. Out of these bored and restless youngsters, who comprise more than 40 percent of the population of 300,000, are increasingly turning to drugs. According to non-official statistics, every Maldivian has an addict in the family, whereas the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, estimates the average age to be 12 for first-time drug users in the Maldives.
Earlier in 2003, a UNDP-funded report provided a dismal scenario of drug abuse in the Maldives. Drug users were mainly in their early twenties whereas Opioid (heroin) and cannabinoids (hashish) were found to be the most frequently used drugs while the most common reason for initiation was peer pressure followed by the desire to experiment.
An increased number of heroin users have also raised concerns about the spread of deadly diseases. Addicts who switch from smoking to injecting drugs risk contracting and transmitting HIV/AIDS, hepa- titis C and other blood-borne diseases.
So how successful has President Nasheed’s government been in addressing the problem? Coinciding with the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, last month, the government launched a new toll-free helpline for local people and communities affected by the trade of illegal drugs. The project, set up in collaboration between the UN, EU, national health authorities and local telecom providers, aims to actively provide assistance to those struggling with the effects of drug use. “The information provided by the helpline will be highly effective for enabling many to recognize the symptoms [of addiction] in order to seek proper relief measures,” said Zeba Tanvir Bukhari, the UNICEF Resident Representative in the Maldives.
Many such similar campaigns have been launched over the past few years in the Maldives. In 2007, the country launched its first nationwide campaign ‘Wake Up’ which invited every Maldivian to be a part of the solution to the country’s growing drug problem. Launched by the National Narcotics Bureau, the non-governmental organization Journey and UNICEF, the campaign emphasizes the importance of community support and acceptance for addicts to help break the stigma and promote recovery.
Similarly, in 2005, Italian footballer and UNICEF Ambassador Paolo Maldini kicked off a nation- wide football tournament, titled Unity Cup, advocating a drug-free and healthy lifestyle for young people in the Maldives.
On the legal front, Maldives police arrested 1153 persons on drug charges in 2010, according to statistics released by the Drug Enforcement Department (DED), a reduction on the 1834 arrests made in 2009. In addition, the police seized 3.3 kilograms of heroin, 5.5 kilograms of cannabis and 790 bottles of alcohol, a total street value of Rf11.2 Million (U.S. $870,000), according to the police.
However, critics argue that the government’s harsh approach to drugs has filled the country’s jails but has failed to curb the number of addicts. They also call for tougher sentences for drug dealers.
On a wider national scale, the government needs to implement well-structured comprehensive precursor control strategies that deny traffickers access to the islands. Analysts believe that sea lanes around Maldives are being used as drug trafficking routes and therefore control over the large number of islands need to be strengthened. Moreover, the law enforcing agencies in the country also need adequate legislation support in line with the UN Conventions to curb the menace of drug abuse and help the Maldives rise as a healthy nation. The writer is Assistant Editor at SouthAsia Magazine. She writes on socio-political and developmental issues of the region.