The UAE's illicit drug problems still seem to be relatively small, but a rise in arrests and the emergence of new types of narcotics is a reminder that it will take vigilance to keep them so.
Vigilance against 'designer drugs'
Around the world an incessant competition, like an arms race, pits law enforcement agencies against the developers and dealers of new "recreational" drugs, both narcotics and stimulants. New official statistics from Dubai make it clear that this battle is still being fought in the UAE.
That mildly pleasant word "recreational" masks the dangers of drug abuse. Some substances have been known for centuries and are against the law almost everywhere. But now police and legislators are having trouble keeping up with wave after wave of "designer drugs" emerging from illicit laboratories or, in other cases, leaking from legal therapeutic use into the twilight world of drug abuse.
Dubai police, reporting a 48 per cent increase in drug arrests in the first three months of 2012 compared to the same quarter of last year, say that a major factor is four types of narcotics that are not yet illegal.
Prudently declining to name the pills, the police called for such substances to be put quickly under existing federal drug law. Some mechanism for this is essential to stop the spread of new drugs: you can't convict anyone of possessing a drug, however dangerous, if it is not illegal.
Overall drug-arrest numbers are low in the UAE, but they are rising, and arrest totals often reveal only the tip of a hidden iceberg of actual use.
In some western countries, "designer drugs" have become a real plague. "Bath salts" are synthetic stimulants like amphetamines. Products sold as "K2" or "spice", among other names, are herbs coated with man-made, untested chemicals which give a "buzz" when smoked.
Bath salts are particularly alarming: one user jumped from a flagpole into traffic, the New York Times reported. A woman scratched her body bloody, convinced something was under her skin. Many reports tell of long-term heart, vision and other damage to even one-time users.
Such products, and simple pills, emerge more quickly than officials can react. Some countries amend their drug laws each time a new potion emerges; the US Drug Enforcement Administration has the power to ban almost any compound for a year, until it can be tested fully.
The UAE's drug problems still seem to be relatively small, but it will take legislative flexibility, along with police vigilance, to keep them so.