Preventing first-time drug use in the UAE

Narcotics shatter hopes and smother dreams

Illegal tablets that were seized in Dubai last year. Dubai Customs

Earlier this month, the UAE's Ministry of Education launched a social media campaign warning young people about the dangers of illicit drug use. This valuable initiative, aimed at preventing substance use disorders, was launched on Twitter with the following tweet:

"Your life is a gift. You must protect it from bad company and instead surround yourself with family, strengthen your independence, and invest in your future for the sake of your nation... Don't try drugs and don't sacrifice your life for drugs."

The World Health Organisation reports that substance use disorders have the highest mortality rate of all psychological problems. People addicted to opioids, for example, are 15 times more likely to die prematurely compared to non-users. Beyond physical harm, drugs take a massive social and emotional toll, too, ruining the lives of individuals, fracturing families and devastating communities.

I grew up in Liverpool during the 1980s. Back then, many of the city's neighbourhoods were being decimated by a heroin epidemic. One of my lasting memories of those days was a poem I once saw, which had been painstakingly etched onto a wall using dead matches. Written in the uppercase of desperation, it read: "Smack-head is my name, or so it seems. Smack smothered my hopes and shattered my dreams. Created to live in a world full of hurt, where pushers push drugs and don't think of the hurt."

Captagon pills are displayed along with a cup of cocaine and hashish at an office of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF), Anti-Narcotics Division in Beirut on June 11, 2010. AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID

There is something very sincere about graffiti. It is typically anonymous and often represents a spontaneous outpouring of the heart. I read this graffiti poem only once, 30 years ago, and it has stayed with me ever since. I wonder what became of its author. Did they escape their addiction? Did they find a cure?

Prevention, of course, is better than cure. With substance use disorders, the best way to prevent the problem is to ensure first-time use (initiation) never occurs. If we don't try a substance, we can't get hooked.

The Ministry of Education has chosen the perfect time of year to launch this initiation-prevention campaign, right at the start of the school summer holidays. Research by the US Department of Health looking at substance use initiation shows a clear spike in first-time drug use during the summer vacation period between June to August. This is often a time when young people have unsupervised free time, and, for some, it is a time to travel abroad.

One of the few studies exploring first-time drug use in the region involved 267 patients receiving treatment for heroin addiction at the Psychological Medicine Hospital in Kuwait. All patients were asked to recount their reasons for first-time use. Number one was "personal problems at home", closely followed by "excessive unsupervised free time". The third and fourth reasons were experimentation, curiosity and overseas travel.

The WHO says substance use disorders have the highest mortality rate of all psychological problems

Excessive unsupervised free time, also known as poor parental monitoring, opens the door to negative peer pressure and greater opportunities for first-time use. When we travel to new places, we can often feel anonymous, adventurous and slightly disinhibited. Feeling this way opens us up to trying new experiences – what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas – including illicit substance use. Furthermore, some places we travel to have relatively lax drug controls; substances hard to get at home are openly available. Thus, a lack of parental supervision and the dizzying effects of overseas travel can converge to make first-time use far more likely.

Overseas travel might be a major factor, but drug use at home happens, too. Despite every effort, illicit drugs still make it into the UAE. Reports of drug seizures by UAE customs officials and those of neighbouring Gulf countries have been increasing steadily over the past decade, especially for amphetamine-type substances, such as Captagon.

The 2021 World Drug Report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime documents a massive regional increase in amphetamine seizures, from around 20 tonnes in 2009, to just over 50 tonnes in 2019. Last month, Saudi Arabia seized 14.4 million amphetamine pills entering the country from Lebanon. The incident led to discussions in the Kingdom about a ban on Lebanese agricultural imports due to the rising number of attempts to smuggle illicit drugs into the country. But, for every shipment seized, how many are making it through?

Supply follows demand and helps create it. We need to do more to prevent first-time drug use. Tragically, for some unfortunate individuals, the first time will lead to a lifetime of chemical dependence and squandered human potential.

The recent preventative initiative from the Ministry of Education is part of the solution. The campaign also includes a poem written and recited by a recovered former drug user. The poet recounts his initiation, fall and eventual salvation, aiming to dissuade others from making the same mistakes. The work is in Arabic with an English translation. The following section captures why it is so vital to prevent first-time use:

"I heard the phrases, try it, try it, try it... It's impossible to get addicted from a single try… I tried it and I wish I never had... It's like a black hole, filled with unknown darkness… You don't see that until you get sucked into it. I saw my dreams begin to fade into the distance…"

Fortunately, this poet's journey has a positive ending.

"Inspiring individuals were the source of my liberation, and the rehabilitation centres offered me support and treatment… Now, I stand here stronger than before. I continue to live my life achieving my ambitions and dreams."

For many who become entangled with drugs, tragically, the ending is far less happy. Instead, dreams are smothered, and lives are lived on the revolving door of rehab and relapse. So let's do all we can to try and ensure first-time use never happens.

Published: July 11, 2021, 5:00 AM
Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University and a columnist for The National