New UAE law brings options for first-time drug offenders

ABU DHABI // Use of illegal drugs has been downgraded to a misdemeanour and options other than jail have been provided for first-time offenders, under changes to the anti-narcotics law.

The minimum four-year jail sentence has been reduced to two, and the Attorney General has the power to send an offender for treatment without the case going to court, after advice from police and prosecutions.

Options for first-time offenders include sending them to a rehabilitation centre, a maximum fine of Dh10,000, or community service.

President Sheikh Khalifa has issued the update to the original law from 1995. It now states that drug use is no longer a felony.

Under the reforms, courts have the option of adding a minimum fine of Dh10,000 to sentences for serial offenders.

And if a drug user is handed over by their family to a rehabilitation centre, police or prosecutors, they face no penalty and will remain in treatment until the centre decides they can be released.

Previously this was only the case if the drug user turned themselves in.

The minimum period spent in rehabilitation centres has been reduced from three to two years.

Dr Asma Fakhri, a drug control and crime prevention expert at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, praised the changes.

“The UAE is one of the leading countries in trying to look at drug dependence from a health perspective and changing laws is not an easy thing,” Dr Fakhri said. “So it is quite commendable to have the courts decide on individual cases.”

Hatem Aly, also of the UNODC, was involved in a study with UAE authorities on drug use in the country. He said the revised law allowed for alternative solutions in drug policy, at least for first-time offenders.

“We see it as a very positive step that the country is considering this alternative,” said Mr Aly. “It is a very smart initiative by the country to develop this treatment system.”

He said the revisions would also save the UAE a lot of money, as the cost of imprisonment is much higher than treatment.

“You cannot imagine the cost of an inmate, because the UAE has very high standards in prisons,” Mr Aly said.

“So the cost of accommodation, services and number of staff is very high and incomparable with the cost of treatment.”

Dr Ali Al Marzooqi, public health and research director of the National Rehabilitation Centre in Abu Dhabi, said that treatment centres across the country would have growing demand after the regulations came into force.

“We analyse the trends of substances and the number of service users each year, and are able to predict the incremental need and plan our services accordingly, in terms of capacity, staffing and budgeting,” he said.

“The new NRC building has nearly double the current capacity and it should be capable of handling the extra influx.”

The revised law also cuts down the sentence of those who use any drugs that are not mentioned in the law, from a minimum of one year in jail to a maximum of one year.

The law comes into force one month after it has been published in the official gazette, although it has not yet been published.

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