BEIRUT: Teary-eyed and terrified, four young girls and boys arrested on charges of drug use sip their juice boxes in the run-down Hobeish police station in Hamra, waiting for their turn to take a drug test.
These four are fortunate; the new prosecutor handling their case will likely release them on bail with mandatory weekly drug tests. Others who were detained for the same crime last year are still fighting the justice system over their minor offense.
Many lawyers and legal experts argue that the justice system is unfairly treating many young Lebanese, caught possessing drugs, with harsh sentences that often overlook rehabilitation. In the absence of laws that seek to help rather than merely punish offenders, many end up with a criminal record on top of an addiction, especially after spending time in Roumieh Prison.
In the past few years, a number of judges and social activists have adopted certain measures to change this reality.
Elie was only 18 when he was arrested in the Beirut suburb of Dikwaneh. The police were in the midst of arresting a major drug dealer, a Jordanian national, in an apartment complex in the Metn area at the time.
The college freshman was heading to the dealer’s flat when police spotted him and upon searching his pockets discovered a bag containing ecstasy.
“I used to take drugs, yes. But I was not a dealer and that’s what I told them [the police] several times when they were handcuffing me,” Elie said.
“One of my friends called me when I was in the police car, asking me to get him some and so they immediately thought I was a dealer,” Elie said, shaking his head, recalling how that moment changed his life completely.
In Hobeish, where the anti-drug division is located, Elie repeatedly told interrogators that he was not a dealer, but an addict who needed help. Instead of rehabilitation, Elie spent three years in Roumieh Prison waiting for his trial date. The prosecutor for Mount Lebanon eventually sentenced him to five years behind bars.
“The judge didn’t even take into account that I was young, in college with good grades, that my mother had passed away months before my addiction began, that my father and brother were absent or the fact that police found nothing when they searched my house,” he said.
“I was just a kid when they threw me into prison ... I used to think that the best years of my life were passing me by,” said Elie, who turned 24 weeks after his release in 2011.
Finding it difficult to find an employer willing to overlook his criminal record and unable to obtain a driver’s license, Elie now works as a freelancer for a broadcast media company.
Not everyone has quite such a sympathetic story.
Talal used to be a heavy drug user and often stayed awake for three days straight “freebasing” cocaine or binging on heroin, while catering to clients. He proudly boasted that he once possessed “the highest quality drugs at a better price.”
“I used to personally go to the Bekaa and meet with the country’s top dealers and get the stuff I needed to sell,” Talal said, adding that his business extended beyond Lebanon.
Drug dealing was lucrative for Talal, who could make up to $30,000 in one day, especially when selling to foreign clients, all at the age of 21.
He was eventually arrested in his Metn house at the age of 22 after many of his customers were apprehended.
An additional two years were pegged onto Talal’s sentence after he was caught attempting to smuggle drugs into Roumieh.
Both Talal and Elie were charged with drug abuse and dealing and sentenced to five years in prison according to Articles 125, 126 and 127 of the 1998 Drug Law, which is currently under heavy scrutiny from some social activists and lawyers.
Articles 125 and 126 hands down a life sentence to those who: plant, sell or offer someone else drugs for personal use; facilitate the use or purchase of the banned material; organize a meeting to facilitate drug abuse; or physicians who illegally issue medical prescriptions.
It has, however, become a norm for judges to decrease the sentence to five years, according to lawyers who spoke to The Daily Star.
Article 127 is concerned with drug addiction and sentences users up to three years in prison. It also stipulates that charges are dropped if the person is a minor, a one-time user, or vows to refrain from using drugs and undergoes government-funded rehabilitation.
But detainees are rarely informed of their rights.
Youssef, 30, who was sentenced to three months for drug use after being rushed to hospital for overdosing on heroin, said neither the judge nor his lawyer informed him that rehab was a possibility. “No one told me about this,” Youssef said.
Nizar Saghieh, a lawyer, said most judges believed that the ruling against drug users was unfair but “are legally bound to it.”
“There are two main problems in Articles 125 and 126: It groups everyone except for the addicts under one ruling and the judges cannot lessen the sentences because that’s the least they can do, given the [prescribed amount is] a life sentence,” Saghieh explained.
This has become a major issue because of the increasing number of users who deal for the purpose of satisfying their addictions, as opposed to those who make huge profits, he added.
Saghieh, who works for Skoun, a center for addicts, criticized the logic used by judges to justify their rulings.
“They think they should punish rather than look at all the circumstances surrounding the case and this is a scary logic given the taboo [surrounding] drug addiction in Lebanese society,” he said.
As a result, Skoun and other nonprofit organizations have prepared a draft law to alter drug-related legislation and to distinguish between low- and high-level drug charges.
“The sentences should be necessary and proportionate, otherwise they are unconstitutional because they violate principles enshrined in international agreements that Lebanon has ratified,” Saghieh added.
But proposals for amendments have been met with disapproval from some, such as Joseph Hawwat, president of Youth Against Drugs, or JAD, who favors stricter measures for drugs users.
“We insist that addicts be apprehended and interrogated because being sympathetic [to their cases] is causing their numbers to rise,” said Hawwat, also a lawyer.
Instead of releasing addicts for treatment, Hawwat proposed they be held in detention centers for at least three weeks, and then transferred to the hospital inside the prison for rehabilitation.
Under the 1998 law, addicts willing to receive treatment should be referred by the prosecutor to the National Committee for Combating Addiction, which began operating in 2013 with support from the Justice Ministry.
But some judges insist addicts should be under arrest to qualify.
According to statistics obtained from the Internal Security Forces, the number of individuals detained on charges of drug use increased by 40 percent between 2008 and 2012 under the current law. Other statistics conducted by NGOs indicate that the number is about 2,000 detained annually.
Most detainees are college students arrested for possessing cannabis, according to ISF stats.
But the strict application of the law and the judicial insistence that users be punished has led to an explosion in Lebanon’s prison population, mostly concentrated in Roumieh.
Anti-drug division officials say their department is the most active, with the highest rates of arrests per day.
As a result, the Roumieh Prison is “infested with drug dealers who are forming networks outside and making profit inside,” said sources familiar with conditions in the facility.
This has prompted a few judges to reconsider harsh rulings and offer drug addicts a second chance, a high-ranking security source at the anti-drug division told The Daily Star.
“In light of changes in daily life, where hashish is readily available just like tobacco and the overpopulation at Roumieh and detention centers, one prosecutor has begun giving young people a second chance,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“One of the judges who we are dealing with now looks at the case and at times releases drug addicts on bail but they have to come in after 10 days for drug tests,” the source said.
“At times, we don’t pursue drug dealers or addicts because we don’t have enough space at the department [detention center],” the source said, pointing to a tiny room where detainees are typically held.