Drug Dilemma

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.

Southasia - - Region - By Huma Iqbal

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.

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