Right approaches vital to crush drug menace | Sunday Observer
Schoolchildren falling prey to illegal drugs

Right approaches vital to crush drug menace

27 November, 2022

One news item shown on TV caught my attention while I was doing research for this article. It was an emotional funeral and the corpse in the coffin was not that of a human. It was a dog, but no ordinary dog either. It was a Police dog named “Listar” who was trained to nab narcotics. The dog had apparently participated in more than 400 such missions, risking its very life, since drug smugglers have a direct line to the underworld or are from the underworld itself.

Using Police dogs to nab narcotics is decidedly low-tech, but surprisingly effective. Deploying dogs is just one way that the authorities nab narcotics smugglers, users and peddlers. But this is no easy task as the smugglers somehow manage to evade the authorities most of the time to ply their sordid trade. It is also rather well-known that drug kingpins or lords often go scot-free due to their powerful connections while only the small fry get caught. In any case, the narcotics business is a truly global one worth more than US$ 32 billion a year, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). This is clearly a battle that we cannot wage alone.

Transit point

Sri Lanka has unfortunately become a transit point for this global illegal drugs trade, lying in the middle of the East-West drug trafficking routes for drug smugglers. Being an island with inadequate resources to patrol its maritime areas 24/7, smugglers often smuggle in drugs to the country from India and elsewhere. Granted, there have been a few major detections of drug smuggling in recent years, but smugglers manage to bring in Kerala Ganja (KG), heroin and ICE to our shores, from where they are dispatched in locations inland by a network of carriers with close links to the local underworld.

It is often said that the proliferation of narcotics substances in the country was one of the unintended consequences of economic liberalisation in the late 1970s. Today, according to Justice, Prison Affairs and Constitutional Reforms Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, over 500,000 persons, most of them youth, are addicted to various narcotics (not counting those addicted to tobacco, which is a legal drug). This is a staggering number given the size of our population and the economy.

Minister Dr. Rajapakshe also revealed in Parliament that among them are senior and even secondary level students (both male and female) in leading schools in Colombo and elsewhere. However, many of these youth have not informed their parents or schools about their drug habit and even when school authorities get to know that some of their students are on drugs, they hide that information from the authorities, fearing loss of reputation. Nevertheless, these school principals have a duty to inform the relevant Government agencies and turn in the students concerned for rehabilitation and treatment. This is an urgent requirement, since drugs such as heroin and ICE Methamphetamine can snuff out young lives in a very short time.

There should be greater focus on rehabilitation, which is certainly better than imprisonment. Our prisons are overflowing with drug addicts, some of whom have not been able to pay the fines imposed on them. The overcrowding of prisons can be avoided if a suitable mechanism is evolved to treat and rehabilitate young drug addicts outside the prison system. There are a few private organisations which already do this and the Government should help them to expand their services.

Sri Lanka already has a law for the rehabilitation of drug offenders - the Drug Dependent Persons (treatment and rehabilitation) Act is supposed to oversee compulsory treatment facilities for them. However, only a comparatively few addicts are sent to these centres every year – for example, only 1253 persons were admitted for treatment in the rehabilitation centres between January to September 2020. This is in sharp contrast to the number of those arrested for drug offences in the same year - 95,496. Thus there is a clear need to expand this program.

Rehabilitation is also much better in the sense that Prison can also be a bad influence on these young lives as they get into contact with convicted murderers, rapists and underworld figures within those four walls. We can also take a cue from other countries that have recorded some success with rehabilitation programs - The

New strategy

High Point Drug Market Intervention is a good example of a program that was created to deal with drug dealers in the USA. First created to address drug-laden areas of High Point, North Carolina in the United States in 2003, the new strategy did more than simply arrest drug dealers and put them in prison. High Point Intervention starts with creating a bond between law enforcement and members of the community who are willing to help the neighbourhood turn around. Violent drug dealers are identified and arrested, but non-violent drug dealers are given a second chance via rehabilitation.

It has also been pointed out that some of our laws related to narcotics and even the rehabilitation of addicts are rather outdated. A controversy erupted when former President Maithripala Sirisena proposed to execute at least four convicted drug lords during his tenure.  

While the new President Ranil Wickremesinghe has pledged that he would not sign any execution warrants, the Death Penalty will still remain in our law books and Courts will be able to deliver death sentences, which will automatically be commuted to life sentences.  The Government has now decided to impose the death penalty with regard to the trafficking of ICE as well. It remains to be seen whether this will be a deterrent to ICE traffickers.

Advice necessary

Some of the other aspects of our narcotics laws were addressed recently with the passage in Parliament of the Poisons, Opium and Dangerous Drugs Amendment Bill. In fact, ICE was not even recognised as a banned narcotics substance until this Bill rectified that massive error. It is also fairly well known that many dangerous pharmaceuticals and drugs were sold legally in pharmacies and elsewhere. Mercifully, the Health Ministry and the National Dangerous Drugs Control Board (NDDCB) have identified 161 such formulations and banned them all. In any case, most legal pharmaceuticals can be dangerous if taken in excess quantities and pharmacists must insist on a prescription and also clearly advice the buyers on the permitted dosages.

True, some narcotics such as Cannabis do have medicinal properties. There are some Ayurvedic preparations that call for the use of Cannabis, which is widely consumed here, though the authorities do not want to admit it. This debate has again been renewed with the recent Budget proposal to explore Cannabis cultivation specifically for export to countries where it is legal mainly for medicinal use. One cannot deny the foreign exchange revenue potential of this move, but strict steps should be taken to prevent the cultivators from flooding the local market as well with their products. There is also a wider debate on whether Cannabis should be legalised here, but any such move should be very, very carefully scrutinised in the backdrop of cultural and religious sentiments.

Bigger role

Indeed, our places of worship and schools should play a bigger role in keeping the youth away from drugs. The school curricula should include a section on the dangers posed by narcotics substances (as well as legal intoxicants such as tobacco and alcohol) and teachers should also keep an eye on their charges. It has been pointed out that the intense pressure created by the unrelenting exam system could actually drive some students to drugs. Hence it is important for teachers and parents to create a school-life balance for schoolchildren, akin to the work-life balance for office workers. Priests of all religions too should direct their sermons towards the youth, on the dangers of narcotics. After all, prevention is always better than cure.

But no country, however, advanced, has managed to entirely stop the flow of illegal narcotics. Drug smugglers have a sophisticated worldwide network, where drugs produced in countries such as Colombia and Afghanistan are trafficked across the globe. They also engage in human trafficking and gun running as a side business. It is thus vital for all countries to share intelligence and information on the movements of such trafficking vessels and vehicles.

Sri Lanka’s Navy (which recently commissioned an advanced vessel) and the Coast Guard must actively participate in these efforts – they have achieved several major drug hauls in recent years. International efforts have to be intensified to nab traffickers in the act.

It is also vital to eliminate corruption in Government authorities vis-a-vis narcotics smuggling. A couple of years ago, several sleuths attached to the Police Narcotics Bureau were arrested due to suspected links with drug lords.

Several jailors were also found to be linked to this ring, where the drug lords had controlled narcotics deals from their prison cells.

The authorities must strive to end such acts of collusion. Ending the drug menace will never be an overnight process, but the right approaches will help in the long run.