National Editorial: The biggest change yet to UAE laws
The UAE has overhauled its drug laws to cut minimum sentences, provide leniency for first-time offenders and put a sharper focus on rehabilitation over punishment.
In a series of sweeping changes, people convicted of drug use and possession will serve time in secure detention offering treatment and education programmes rather than in prison with other convicts.
Deportation for expats in drug use and possession cases is no longer mandatory, with judges able to decide if someone convicted is allowed to stay.
The changes were detailed in full in the country's Official Gazette.
First-time offenders can receive minimum sentences of three months as part of an approach aimed at integrating drug users back into society but imposing tougher punishments for serial offenders.
The UAE previously reduced minimum sentences from four years to two in 2016.
Carrying food, drinks or any other products which contains marijuana, hashish or THC, found in cannabis, will no longer be a criminal offence. Instead, such items will be confiscated and destroyed.
The new legislation was outlined in the Official Gazette and will come into effect on January 2.
The move forms part of the most extensive reforms to the legal system in the country's history, announced by the President, Sheikh Khalifa on Saturday.
Changes include greater protection of personal data, stronger copyright rules and tackling fake news.
More than 40 laws are included. Some are new, while others are updated versions of existing legislation.
Three-month sentence for first offence
Article 41 of the new law states that first-time offenders will be sentenced to prison for at least three months and be fined between Dh20,000 and Dh100,000 ($5,445 and $27,225).
If they repeat the offence within three years, the sentence will be a minimum of six months with a fine of between Dh30,000 and Dh100,000.
For a third offence, a minimum sentence of two years will be imposed and the fine will be at least Dh100,000.
“The legislator gave the court freedom to decide the penalty between either imprisonment or fine in the first and second instances but in the third instance, a penalty of combined prison and fine is mandatory,” said Dr Hasan Elhais, of Al Rowaad Advocates.
Specialist detention centres instead of prison
The law sets out plans for the Ministry of Health and Prevention to establish dedicated centres where those convicted of drug use or possession will serve their terms.
These will provide treatment and rehabilitation programmes, sports and vocational training, as well as family, occupational and social integration initiatives.
'Recognising illness not crime'
Article 45 of the new law allows courts to prioritise treatment for first-time offenders.
“We can clearly see a recognition of the need for a co-ordinated approach that considers criminal justice and public health in regards to using drugs,” legal consultant Dr Elhais said.
“While justice is at the heart of the new law, we can also see how the issue of using drugs is being looked at as an illness rather than a crime."
The previous law required courts to order deportation against expatriates in drug-related cases.
“But deportation against expats is now optional for judges in cases of personal use, possession or possession with the intent to use as per the new law’s article 75,” Dr Elhais said.
“The legislative philosophy behind the amendments is coherent in the way it's considering multiple factors including health, justice, sense of security and family.”
Ahmed Ibrahim Saif, senior judge at the Dubai Civil Court and former chief justice of Dubai's Criminal Courts, said changes to the legal system were in line with the UAE's tolerant principles.
“In this recent change, reform is further prioritised, offenders are given second chances and are spared loss of successful futures and decent living they have in the country,” he said.
Mr Saif said that deportation can be a harsh punishment, though necessary in more serious cases.
“Now, it's becoming flexible in terms of allowing judges to decide it rather than keeping it mandatory,” he said.
The official believes it is a step in the right direction, particularly in cases that involve using controlled medicine.
“For example, someone in court for using a controlled medicine without a prescription must be deported according to the previous law, but now they are given a second chance,” he said.
“If they do it again, then they only have themselves to blame if judges decided to deport them.”
Tough stance on trafficking remains in place
Under the updated laws, the fine against offenders for encouraging personal drug use among others was increased from Dh20,000 to a minimum of Dh50,000, while the prison term of a minimum of five years remains unchanged.
Should this happen with the intent of causing harm to the other person, the fine would rise to up to Dh100,000 instead of the previous Dh20,000 but the minimum prison term of seven years remain the same.
In the event of serious harm, the penalty is imprisonment for at least 10 years and a minimum fine of Dh200,00, up from Dh20,000.