Starting next week, eight state schools in Abu Dhabi will begin teaching pupils, teachers and parents about the hazards of addiction. As The National reported yesterday, this pilot programme is an attempt to combat an alarming increase in the number of young addicts, and to reduce rehabilitation costs.
The move is in the right direction if it signals a shift in authorities' approach to substance abuse, away from punitive measures toward a preventive and victim-centred approach, not only in schools but for the whole population. Strict punishments for offenders have been enforced for years, yet the issue persists.
Education is certainly needed. Lawyers say one cause of drug, alcohol, and tobacco use is that offenders are led to think these substances boost learning and sexual ability or weight loss. Young people seeking this kind of "medical" effect can be unaware of potentially serious dangers.
Authorities should have no qualms about bringing the full force of law down on drug dealers. But ordinary users, especially young people who have often been lured into an addiction, should be seen as victims, for whom treatment and counselling make more sense that imprisonment.
Emirati families, like expatriate ones, have sometimes been reluctant to turn in drug users, for fear they would be jailed until released by judges for treatment. FNC members have said that for this reason some Emiratis actually left the country for treatment.
Evidence from other countries shows that a "harm reduction" strategy is more useful in rehabilitating addicts - of alcohol or drugs. Without simple punishment, users are more likely to relapse after prison - to say nothing of the bad habits and bad companions they can acquire in jail.
Announcing the pilot programme yesterday, officials said social workers and teachers would be involved. In fact there is a lot for social workers to do in schools, if they are not used for administrative tasks but rather have the chance to engage with and help students,
Police also have a role, not only in their traditional function but also in these new prevention classes and in, for example, preventing shops near schools from selling tobacco, or candy cigarettes, to young students.
Everyone has to help in the fight against addiction. This pilot programme is well conceived and will be watched with interest.