BEIRUT: It’s known that drug use is criminalized in Lebanon, with punishment ranging from three months to three years in prison in the case of personal consumption, along with a fine.
Over the years a number of activists have come forward to call for decriminalizing drug use, and none have been more active in Lebanon than Skoun, an NGO founded in 2003 with a mission to help addicts claim their lives by providing nonjudgmental care and treatment.
In honor of the international “Support. Don’t Punish.” Campaign, which takes place annually on June 26, the Global Action Day that calls for “ending the war on drugs,” Skoun organized a gathering of activists, lawyers and supporters for a roundtable discussion on the decriminalization of drugs in Lebanon.
“The Support. Don’t Punish. campaign is calling for policies that are based on human rights and public health, especially for youth ranging from 16 to 30 years old, which constitute around 80% of those arrested, according to the Central Drug Bureau,” Michelle Wazzan, drug policy department coordinator at Skoun, told Annahar.
The speakers included Dr. Ramzi Haddad, psychiatrist and cofounder of Skoun, Dr. Rabih Chammay, psychiatrist and head of the National Mental Health program at the Ministry of Public Health, head of the journalism department at Legal Agenda, Saada Allaw and lawyer Karim Nammour who’s a board member of the Legal Agenda which monitors law and public policy in Lebanon.
“The National Mental Health program called for the development of an inter-ministerial substance response strategy with the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Social Affairs,” Dr. Rabih Chammay told Annahar. “The aim of the strategy is to have a comprehensive response to the problem of substance use.”
Dr. Haddad commenced the event with a discussion on “Silah,” the first online study to be done on drug consumption (not to be confused with drug addiction) in Lebanon and the region. Conducted in 2018 and funded by the EU, the survey was implemented in partnership with Soins Infirmiers et Dévelopement Communautaire (SIDC. The study had 3274 anonymous responses, where it gauged their substance use patterns and behaviours as well as their attitudes and opinions around drug related topic. Its results coincided with that of several American and European studies done abroad.
Surprisingly, 51%-52% of consumers are women, which means that women are more “interested” in substance abuse than we think they are. They might, however, be more hesitant to seek help in clinics, which is why we don’t often see them in rehabs.
Dr. Haddad also spoke of cocaine consumption, which reached 5% of the consumers, and of the “lifetime” of every drug consumption. As for arrest due to drug possession, 7% of the survey respondents said that they were arrested.
He ended the presentation with an open question: Should the government stop punishing substance users?
It was later time for the panel to begin, during which Nammour noted that, in the case of cannabis, decriminalizing drug use doesn’t necessarily entail the legalization of growing them, as these are two separate things.
Chammay noted that there are five goals for the National Mental Health program: to decrease the prevalence of disorders caused by addiction, to delay the age in which experimenting with drugs starts, to decrease the prevalence of blood-transmitted diseases, to decrease the number of deaths due to overdose, and to remove the stigma associated with addiction.
Nammour believes that decriminalizing drugs is necessary “because criminalization of drugs is simply not working anymore, and imprisonment is also not a solution. This is why we don’t force treatment on the users, we allow them to choose between prison and treatment, and a big number of them would go for treatment.”
He added that, legally speaking, people who choose to harm only themselves should not be punished by law, as this is personal freedom.
On the financial side, criminalizing personal drug use and using all my resources to track and imprison users is very expensive on the government's budget. Why not use the same money to build addiction treatment centers all over Lebanon, Nammour inquired.
Journalist Saada Allaw, who hails from Baalbak, Hermel spoke about the lack of access of youth in Bekaa to treatment centers close by, as well as their lack of access to proper education, which feeds their drug use. She added that many citizens of Baalbek grow cannabis as a means to survive and increase their sparse income, and that doesn’t make them dealers.
“There are 48,000 warrant searches and arrests in Baalbek, Hermel, and nothing is being done to help,” she said.
During the session, Skoun announced that it’s opening a rehabilitation center in Baalbek Governmental Hospital as part of their strategy for treating mental health and addiction. The session ended with a heated debate among the audience on the criminalization of drugs.
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