x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Drug addiction is not a criminal issue

With drug abuse increasingly common in the UAE, addicts must be provided with the possibility of treatment before tragedy strikes.

Last month, in a statement about the extent and nature of drug addiction in the UAE, the country’s National Rehabilitation Centre reported that a product as seemingly innocuous as a tea bag, discovered a month earlier, contained a substance called “spice” that had the same effects as hashish.

That these tea bags could be bought legally at several markets (but have since been outlawed) highlights the difficulties that society faces when dealing with drug abuse issues. A drug addict might conjure an image of a man in the gutter with a needle in his arm – in fact, he could be a co-worker, friend or family member.

According to the UN World Drug Report 2011 released today, synthetic and prescription drugs are among the most commonly abused substances across the region, with 64 per cent of addicts in the UAE who seek treatment hooked on prescription drugs. In Lebanon that figure is 57 per cent, and in Syria and Oman, a surprising 95 per cent and 100 per cent respectively.

Convictions for drug use and trafficking in the UAE carry very harsh sentences, but it is clear that addiction is an illness as much as a crime. Traffickers and peddlers need to face the full brunt of the law, but users deserve more sympathy.

Providing more rehabilitation facilities where addicts can receive treatment and counselling without fear of prosecution should be a priority.

The prevalence of what Dubai police are calling “death pills” – the illicit trade in pharmaceutical drugs – is a an unfortunate byproduct of legitimate prescription medicine. But trafficking in pharmaceuticals plagues the region and the UAE, due to its strategic location, in particular.

The fact that the country’s major drug issues are pharmaceutical, rather than relating to street drugs like heroin, shows a new face of drug abuse. But addiction to pills should not be seen as a lesser disease.

Last June in Al Ain, according to court officials in Abu Dhabi, an Omani man allegedly caused the death of his friend when he slammed his car into a concrete wall. He is on trial to answer charges that a cocktail of morphine, oxazepam and temazepam clouded his judgement.

There needs to be a concerted campaign against the abuse of prescription drugs. But more importantly, this highlights the need to provide addicts with the possibility of a cure before tragedy strikes.