For the first six months after the National Rehabilitation Centre opened its doors in Abu Dhabi in 2002, such was the stigma surrounding addiction that only one person came forward for help. Since then, as word of its compassionate programmes has spread, the centre has gone from strength to strength and helped more than 3,500 patients. Now the centre, which this week is hosting a three-day World Health Organisation conference to improve international collaboration in the fight against substance abuse, is to become the foundation of a new training institute that will spread its progressive philosophy of care throughout the region by training staff to treat addicts.
Addiction is a problem that affects every nation and, despite Islam’s categoric condemnation of all intoxicants, a small minority in the Arab world suffer from it. In Abu Dhabi, a rise in drug-related arrests has necessitated the creation of dedicated courts. In the first six months of this year, police seized 600kg of narcotics and arrested 1,200 dealers and users. The work of the National Rehabilitation Centre, founded at the direction of Sheikh Zayed in 2000, is a perfect example of an increasingly nuanced and empathetic approach to this issue.
The judicial system has also recognised that punishment alone is no solution to what is essentially a medical problem. In 2016 the offence of using illegal drugs was downgraded to a misdemeanour, minimum sentences were halved and alternatives to prison, including fines, community service and enrolment in a rehabilitation programme, were introduced for first-time offenders.
It is right that smugglers and suppliers, who cynically exploit human frailties, should continue to feel the full weight of the law. But the UAE’s enlightened attitude to their victims recognises that human beings are fallible. Over the past 16 years, the National Rehabilitation Centre has rescued thousands from the abyss of addiction, helping them to return to their loved ones and their lives as useful members of society. By treating them all as patients, not criminals, the centre and its devoted staff daily honour the doctrine of compassion that is central to Islam.