Lebanon News

Draft drug law stresses treatment, not punishment

BEIRUT: The Lebanese Addictions Center Skoun Thursday presented a draft law aiming to replace the current Narcotics Law, which they say criminalizes drug users instead of providing them with adequate treatment.

Speaking during a media round table to present the main amendments of the draft law, which was developed by several associations, lawyers and judges, as well as psychiatrists and drug users, project coordinator Chantal Chedid explained that a reformed law was necessary in order to “preserve the rights of drug users in Lebanon and especially their right to access treatment.”

The current 1998 law theoretically gives drug users the choice between treatment and prison, but also states treatment should be provided by rehabilitation centers affiliated with the Health Ministry, which simply don’t exist for now.

There are fewer than 10 rehabilitation centers in the country, and they all belong to NGOs.

“The concept of treatment exists in the current law, but it’s not applied because there aren’t any affiliated centers,” Chedid said.

A Drug Addiction Committee in charge of referring drug users to centers also exists under the current law, but is inactive because of the absence of affiliated centers.

Some judges already take the initiative to refer drug users to NGO rehabilitation centers, but only in very rare cases. Most drug users are simply given jail time, usually from three to six months.

Human Rights lawyer Nizar Saghieh, the project’s legal adviser, said the draft law suggests referring drug users to existing centers instead of waiting for the Health Ministry to establish affiliated centers. It also recommends Drug Addiction Committees to be implemented in each governorate, and to include judges, health professionals and civil society representatives.

The draft law also differentiates between “recreational users” and drug addicts, and drug-using and non-drug using dealers, regarding punishment.

According to latest statistics from the Drug Enforcement Bureau, 2,228 drug users were arrested in 2009 and almost half of them were aged 18-25.

Lawyer Lina Chamoun is in charge of a rehabilitation center the association AJEM opened inside Roumieh prison a few years ago, which she said “gives priority to young people.”

“We can receive some 40 people who sleep there, and are isolated from the prison and stay with us for nine months,” she says, explaining this “first experience in Lebanon” was far from sufficient. AJEM estimates that at least 1,000 detainees in Roumieh were arrested either for drug use or trafficking, and are mixed with the general prison population.

She said the association has proposed to prison officials the separation of prisoners, based on their sentences.

Saghieh emhphasized the need for raising awareness on the fact that drug users are entitled to treatment.

“We’re trying to move away from this perception we have in Lebanon that drug users are criminals,” he said. “A [jail] sentence is not always the most suitable solution.”

“What’s most important is not the law; it’s the process of making the public aware of the subject,” he continued.

As Chedid said, “we insist strongly on the concept of treatment in the amendments we suggest: for example giving the possibility to drug users to have access not only to close rehabilitation centers but also to other treatments, such as substitution, or [outpatient] rehabilitation centers.”

The draft law also asks for drug use to be less obvious on criminal records. “A lot of drug users, because of their criminal records, don’t have access to jobs, university. It’s a vicious circle,” Chedid said.

Before presenting the draft law to Parliament, its defenders see the first step as approaching MPS, members of the Cabinet, the unions of lawyers and psychiatrists and “get their input on the draft law,” as well as raising awareness with the general public.

“We need institutions, partners, and media support to reach this goal.”

Chedid was optimistic and explained that past round tables with judges or religious leaders showed that many supported the law. “We know it’s going to take time. But we want to be positive.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 21, 2011, on page 3.

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