A change in the law to offer rehabilitation rather than jail has had a transformative effect on society
A sensible, realistic approach recognises drug addicts as victims
Until a reformation in the law last year, drug use in the UAE carried a minimum sentence of up to four years in prison. But addicts, as experts will vouch, are rarely deterred by the prospect of punishment. A report published by the National Rehabilitation Centre (NRC) in Abu Dhabi in 2015 estimated the annual cost of drug addiction to the UAE’s economy was Dh5.5 billion. The NRC’s research, backed by the United Nations’ Office of Drugs and Crime, found that a majority of drug users are school dropouts and that at least 45 per cent of all addicts are unemployed.
Addiction is its own form of punishment, which is why the NRC recommended a rehabilitative rather than a punitive course of action. Last October, the narcotics law was accordingly amended to reflect the expert view; prison terms were reduced to two years and judicial authorities were given the option of fining users and sending them to rehabilitation facilities instead of imprisoning them. The results, as The National reports, are profoundly encouraging. In the year since the new law came into effect, more than 100 drug users have come forward voluntarily or were turned in by their relatives. Families who might otherwise have been fearful of their loved ones being punished by jail for drug use now feel confident about alerting authorities to the problem.
The shame of addiction has given way to hope and people can now seek emancipation from drugs without fear. But rather than being seen as a soft touch, the UAE should be seen as taking a sensible and realistic approach to the scourge of drug use rather than a lenient one. As colonel Abdulrahman Al Owais, the deputy chief of the Federal Anti-Narcotics Department, told The National, the new law does not “encourage people to start consuming but to turn themselves in and this is reflected in an increase in the number of cases, which means we are heading in the right direction”.
In the long term, treating individuals afflicted by drug addiction and enabling them to return to work can only be beneficial to the economy. It will have a healing effect on individuals, communities and the country at large. But the empathy extended to drug addicts can never be extended to drug traffickers. The former can claim to be victims; the latter are victimisers. Drugs destroy individuals, shatter families and endanger society – and the law rightly gives no quarter to those who peddle drugs and profit by fostering dependency on them. Nowhere has the war on drugs resulted in a victory. But the UAE is demonstrating that the fallout from the use of drugs can be contained.
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