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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Abu Dhabi plans dedicated drug courts from next year after rise in substance abuse cases

Officials say progressive system will deliver the best treatment and value for money

Addicts require support in their fight to remain clean of drugs, experts say. Philip Cheung / The National
Addicts require support in their fight to remain clean of drugs, experts say. Philip Cheung / The National

A rise in the number of people caught using drugs in Abu Dhabi is adding greater need for a specialised justice system and dedicated drug courts, according to a senior justice official.

As the International Society of Addiction Medicine global conference concluded in the capital yesterday, Abu Dhabi Judicial Department (ADJD) said it expects such courts will be ready by early next year.

Ali Al Dhaheri, head of the Judicial Inspection Department at ADJD, said the move came against a backdrop of a notable rise in the number of cases seen by the courts.

He said there were 721 cases involving the consumption of drugs between October 2015 and September 2016. This rose to 925 between October 2016 and September 2017.

This has made it "necessary and not a luxury" to establish specialised drug courts, which are widely used in the United States.

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Requests have already been made to issue a federal law paving the way for such services across the country.

"We are ready and it should happen very soon, because this is a positive move so it shouldn't take time to be introduced, and we are working on that," Mr Al Dhaheri said.

The Abu Dhabi Judicial Department has previously introduced courts and prosecutions specialised with certain offences.

"And drugs are even more serious and dangerous because they are directly connected with society, the economy and state security," he said.

Mr Al Dhaheri said a special system tailored to understanding and tackling drug problems will bring better treatment and value for money.

"The cost of treatment, clothing, food, nursing and rehabilitation of one user in prison costs more than Dh500 a day," he said.

If a drug addict could be treated at home then he or she could be catered for for about Dh100 a day, the official said.

The ISAM conference, held at Emirates Palace, has in recent days discussed the rise of new drugs, challenges to tackling addiction and the best practice for anti-narcotics authorities.

Desiree Bruce-Lyle, a US superior court judge from San Diego, told delegates that trying to treat a drug addict in the mainstream justice system costs seven times more than in a tailored system or facility.

Mr Al Dhaheri said that the new courts would treat addicts and users as patients, rather than criminals, which is a more efficient way to tackle the issue.

"It has become a social and humanitarian issue as well," he said.

In drug courts, the judge would follow the treatment of an addict and have an understanding of the drug addiction and recovery process. Prosecutors would also know that there were a range of tools at their disposal, not just jail terms.

"Specialised judges will have a scientific background on addiction and not only legal; they would also have thorough knowledge on rehabilitation and will cooperate with the National Rehabilitation Centre (NRC)."

The main goal is that drug users don't turn into criminals, but have the chance to recover and return safely back to society and their families, he said.

"The point is not to throw them in prison or fine them, but the real challenge is how to bring them back as positive members of society," he said.

The fight against drugs like heroin continues, but he said many addicts today are hooked on prescription drugs.

"Drug consumption is no longer limited to the main drugs like hashish, heroin and cocaine," he said.

"Now there are many medical pills that are being used for addiction. So a family should not have to lose a member because of psychotropic pills."

The UAE justice system has already taken a more lenient stance on drug users - but not dealers and suppliers - and last year halved the minimum sentence, to two years from four.

It also gave judges more options, such as a Dh10,000 fine and community service for first time offenders. It also strengthened rehab options.

The old law also did not give judges any room for considering leniency factors, such as defendants aged under 21, or first offenders, he said.

"Before 2016, the idea was that stringency might be the deterrent to stop the spread of drug use, but despite the strictness of the penalty... the cases did not drop," he said.

Mike Trace, chief executive of the Forward Trust, a British organisation that runs drug and alcohol treatment programmes in prisons and in the community, said that evidence suggests tough punishments for possession in particular does not put users off drugs.

"Generally, being tougher does not solve the problem," he said.

"What we saw in America in the 80s and 90s was they had the toughest measures in the world, and during that period they had the highest rate of drug use among young people," he said.

"So that is one example of how more tough measure does not mean less use."

Over the past 20 years, the UK has adopted a more progressive approach to sentencing, he said.

"In our sentences we have diverted more people away from prison rather than sending them there," Mr Trace said.

"We have had this policy in the UK for twenty years, during this period we have seen a small reduction in number of addicts, but quite a large number of reduction in users."

There were around four million drug users 20 years ago, he said, and that figure has gone down by 20 per cent since then.

"So broadly a good situation but not a spectacular success," he said.