It would be easy to suggest that substance abuse is not a major problem in the UAE. After all, for many of us it is an invisible issue. But for a growing number of people it is the nightmare that takes a high toll on young lives, breaks up families, and fuels crime and other social dysfunction.
The director general of the National Rehabilitation Centre (NRC), Dr Hamed Al Ghafiri, put it bluntly in The National yesterday, saying that the growth in the number of people seeking treatment at his facility was “alarming”.
The centre, which treats Emiratis suffering with drug and alcohol addiction, has reported a 13.5 per cent increase in patient numbers this year compared to the whole of 2012. Those patients come from both genders, and the biggest increase has been among adolescents.
About 3,500 addicts have been admitted for treatment at the NRC since it opened in 2002, the vast majority of them in the past three years. The most common form of addictions are to alcohol, prescription opiates (such as Tramadol), illegal opiates (including heroin) and amphetamines.
The incidence of addiction is global, and it has been posited that the UAE’s location as a travel hub has made it a “hot spot” for illegal drug trafficking and consequent drug use. Trafficking is, of course, a criminal offence, but addiction is first and foremost a health issue — and one that needs to be treated as such. Its existence should not be hidden away, it must be the subject of a mature and public conversation.
The NRC is taking many positive steps, including its “Unplugged” programme, which teaches schoolchildren about the hazards of drugs and alcohol, and a proposal for a crackdown on “doctor shopping”, where addicts can get multiple prescriptions by approaching different practitioners. There are also plans to train more addiction professionals.
These actions deserve praise and support, because the NRC cannot operate in isolation. There must be a shift in attitude across the community, first to recognise that the problem exists and then to tackle it head on.
School lessons about the dangers of substance abuse must be reinforced in the home, and at all levels of society.
Any stigma associated with addiction must be put aside, so that addicts and their families feel comfortable in talking about the issue among themselves, and in seeking outside professional help.