BEIRUT: Samir Khashan was a drug addict for 24 years. His addiction landed him in trouble with the law; he was arrested and imprisoned dozens of times. “I passed through all the prisons that exist in Lebanon,” said the 41-year-old from Hadath. But recently things have improved for Khashan. He found a rehabilitation organization to help him and he has started a drug substitution therapy program to battle his addiction.
The organization that is helping Khashan fight his addiction, Skoun, held a drug addiction conference at the Movenpick Hotel in Beirut on Friday. Khashan was one of the testimonial speakers at the event, which also featured presentations from judges, government specialists, NGO workers, and focused on the need for government efforts to rehabilitate and treat drug addicts, rather than simply assign them time in jail.
“There needs to be more recognition that addiction is a treatable disease,” said Nadya Mikdashi, the director of Skoun, about the purpose of the event. “There needs to be more people joining in on addressing this issue, it cannot just stay in the hands of the police force and the judicial system.”
Friday’s conference marked the conclusion of Skoun’s two-year program, which was funded by Afkar 2, a civil society initiative financed by the European Union and administered by the Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Reform.
There are few reliable numbers on the prevalence of drug use and addiction in Lebanon, but an illicit trade in various types of narcotics is rampant, and often the target of government crack-downs.
While alternative crops programs have been unsuccessful in weaning farmers away from drug cultivation, addicts have usually lacked a sufficient level of treatment programs, and are instead usually punished with jail time.
Reforming the country’s drug laws began in 1998 with a drug reform amendment that decriminalized drug addiction. However, the implementation of that amendment stalled, as the government had few resources to put it into effect.
“What they are doing right now is not solving the problem. When you incarcerate or arrest, you’re not solving the addiction you’re punishing the addiction,” Mikdashi said.
Some members of the government have been supportive of the push for reform. Several government officials and judges were present at the Friday’s conference and gave presentations on what can be done to stimulate change.
Mikdashi helped found Skoun in 2003 to provide treatment for addicts and raise drug addiction awareness in young people. It provides one of the few outpatient drug treatment centers in Lebanon. A total of 172 people were treated by the Skoun program in 2008, and 68 people are currently seeking treatment from the program.
Since its creation, Skoun has received funding from international and local donors; it then expanded its efforts to lobby for legal reform in 2007, through funding from the EU’s Afkar civil society project.
“Treatment aside, the spirit of Skoun, in its non-judgmental, non-moralizing way of accepting who we are as people first, creates safety and empowers us,” said Khashan, the former drug addict.
Khashan said the mere fact that government officials were attending a conference like the one held at the Movenpick represented a significant shift in culture from the past.
“If the government recognizes the need to provide treatment, then this would be a huge accomplishment – drug addiction is a sickness that needs to be treated.”