x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Recognise threat of substance abuse

The UAE Government must try to effectively deal with the stigma attached to drug abuse as it fights the menace

Drug and alcohol abuse spares no country, rich or poor. Even in the UAE, where zero-tolerance laws are a powerful deterrent to would-be traffickers as well as users, people still suffer from debilitating addictions.

Across the Middle East, social pressures often make addicts feel like outcasts and pariahs so that suffering is too often done in silence. As Mouawiya Alawad, the director of the institute of social and economic research at the National Research Foundation, told The National this week: "GCC societies are starting to be affected by drug and alcohol abuse, things that are new to the society." How the region deals with these challenges will very much depend on whether perceptions of addiction evolve.

The trends associated with chemical dependencies vary from country to country. And, compared to many parts of the world, the rates of addiction here are lower, or at least appear to be. But low doesn't mean insignificant. In Dubai, the number of patients checking in to the National Rehabilitation Centre rose by 30 per cent between 2010 and 2011. As one anonymous 34-year-old Emirati told this newspaper in 2011, the trend among his friends had been to turn to prescription painkillers.

Not surprisingly, many governments find it easier to ignore the issue of substance abuse, rather than grapple with such an intractable problem. Yet downplaying the issue helps to maintain the stigma and dissuade addicts from seeking help.

Changing attitudes and bringing treatment programmes online will take time. Government does understand the urgency of the problem however. This week the International Commission for the Prevention of Alcoholism and Drug Dependency, a branch of the United Nations, announced a grant of Dh3.6 million to UAE University for a project to study dependency in the Emirates. The first addictive substance to be studied will be nicotine, a drug that is abused both legally and with widespread social acceptance.

From nicotine and smoking, university researchers will eventually move on to the harder drugs. Using this data to understand the threat of addiction in this society - and whether that threat is growing - is crucial to long-term rehabilitation.