Doctor's plea to reform federal narcotics law

A top drug treatment official says sometimes UAE laws stand in the way of common-sense solutions to drug crime.

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DUBAI // The country's drug laws are "counter-productive", a senior government official says.

Under the current legislative system it takes rehab patients eight months to reach a professional, said Dr Saleha bin Dheban, the director of Al Amal Psychiatric Hospital in Dubai and the director of rehabilitation at the Ministry of Social Affairs.

Worse, she added, many people convicted of drug crimes are simply punished - not rehabilitated - and end up back in court as repeat offenders.

"The federal anti-narcotics law, which was put in place in 1995, is counter-productive and presents itself as more of a hurdle than anything else," she said this week at a conference in Dubai.

Dr bin Dheban said the way the law divided responsibilitiesfor fighting drug use was not helpful.

Drug users are dealt with by the ministries of Interior and Justice when they are caught and punished; by the Ministry of Health when they are being rehabilitated; and by the Ministry of Social Affairs when they are being reintegrated into society.

She said there is a lack of understanding of the difference between a drug user and a drug addict, who must be treated differently.

"The absence of a holistic service and the division of responsibilities between all these ministries makes it difficult for addicts and users to gain access to the system," she said. "An average of eight months is taken to reach a government rehabilitation committee, because a person is caught and tried, then imprisoned, and then referred to a rehabilitation.

"This is a long time and professional intervention in the UAE is needed from the start."

The law takes a narrow two-tiered approach to drug consumption, she said. On the legislative side, drug use is criminalised and punished. On the medical side, it is treated as an illness.

Dr bin Dheban said this drops drug users into the middle of a four-way junction: "They can go to the legal system, or to jail, or to their families, or approach the health system".

But no matter what they choose, she said, all drug users, whether seeking rehabilitation or not, have a chance at landing in prison.

Dr bin Dheban is calling for:

- A review of the 1995 law.

- People convicted of drug use to be separated from the general prison population, in order to avoid the spread of addiction in both directions.

- Direct, professional intervention when police arrest users, so that the rehabilitation process starts before they reach prison.

- The provision of social welfare and psychiatric consultation for rehabilitated individuals, as well as the recruitment of more people providing these services.

- A structured way to handle the pardons issued every year for many narcotics prisoners, in order to keep them under watch and rehabilitation.

"Users who approach us are treated confidentially but if they are arrested red-handed, we do not continue to treat them unless police permission is granted," to a hospital official said.

There are only two rehabilitation facilities in the country: a programme at Al Amal Psychiatric Hospital, and the nation's only site dedicated to rehab, the National Rehabilitation Centre in Abu Dhabi.

Al Amal Hospital is the only rehabilitation centre for drug users from the Northern Emirates. The hospital operates under the Ministry of Health, and those who seek rehabilitation are not immune from prosecution.

The National Rehabilitation Centre this week said it was adding 40 beds to its current capacity of about 30. In October, officials announced plans for a 200-bed rehabilitation centre almost five times the size of the current one. Work is to start in April, with the facility due to open in 2014.