|Date: Jun 27, 2018|
|Source: The Daily Star|
|NGOs, activists welcome move on drug rehab option|
|Timour Azhari| The Daily Star|
BEIRUT: If you are arrested for suspected drug abuse, there is now a legally binding order from one of Lebanon’s highest judges recognizing your right to ask for referral to treatment instead of criminal prosecution. Monday, a day before the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, General Prosecutor Judge Samir Hammoud, who heads the Court of Cassation, issued a circular calling on regional public prosecutors to refer those arrested on suspected drug abuse to the National Addiction Committee.
An interministerial body established five years ago and housed at the Justice Ministry, the NAC is tasked with referring suspects to treatment and overseeing that process.
Activists and NGOs that work on the treatment of drug abuse Tuesday welcomed the decision.
“It’s a huge step forward,” Nadya Mikdashi, the director of Skoun Lebanese Addictions Center, told The Daily Star. “This circular applies to all drugs. It’s an indication that the judicial system agrees people who use drugs or have addiction problems should be treated rather than enter the criminal justice system.”
Skoun has been instrumental both in treating drug use and lobbying the state to increase its support for treatment over criminalization. The NGO, along with legal rights advocacy group Legal Agenda, has lobbied officials, judges and head of the NAC Judge Rima Khalil on the issue.
“Most people [suspected of drug crimes] don’t know that this principle – of treatment as an alternative to prosecution – exists,” Karim Nammour, a lawyer and member of Legal Agenda who works on drug abuse issues told The Daily Star.
Additionally, Nammour said many public prosecutors and judges were either unaware of the law or chose not to implement it for a variety of reasons, including due to a belief that it only applied at later stages of judicial proceedings. In light of this, Nammour described the circular coming from the judge who sets the tone for public prosecutors across the country as “very important.”
Since its the NAC’s establishment in 2013, only 3 percent of the roughly 2,500 people arrested for drug abuse a year have been sent to the committee, with the remaining 97 percent taking the long route through Lebanon’s criminal courts.
The circular has ordered public prosecutors to implement relevant articles of the 1998 Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances Law.
These include Article 194, which states that an “addict” can ask to receive treatment during interrogation, after which the judge presiding over the case “decides to stop the [legal] proceedings and refer him” to the NAC.
Once there, treatment measures are decided in cooperation with a hospital. “If the addict continues the treatment until the committee receives a certificate confirming his recovery ... the presiding judge decides to stop all [legal proceedings],” Hammoud’s circular said, quoting Article 195 of the law.
With the release of the public statement, Mikdashi said Skoun was now working to get all police stations and judges informed of the circular, in addition to continuing to inform drug users of their rights.
Previously, those arrested on drug abuse charges would often not ask for treatment because they didn’t know it was an option. Consequently, suspects have been detained or released on bail and have then had to defend themselves in a criminal court, rather than being transferred to the NAC directly from their interogation.
Nammour said there were also issues with the centralization of the NAC in Beirut that have yet to be dealt with. Sandy Mteirik, a drug policy development manager at Skoun, told The Daily Star that apart from one person from the Bekaa Valley and another from Sidon, the NAC has been referred no other suspects from outside Beirut and Mount Lebanon in its history.
This and the low number of people referred to the committee overall was in large part due to its centralization in the capital, Nammour said, adding that there was a need for the committee to be made accessible to people in other population centers around the country.
One individual, who was called in for interrogation at Beirut’s notorious Hobeish Police Station after her friends were arrested on drug abuse charges, said she had not been aware of the treatment option during her more than two-year ordeal with the criminal justice system.
The source, who asked to be referred to as K.S. to protect her anonymity, said fear of impending imprisonment had led her to skip out on the interrogation, causing a series of legal problems.
It was only when K.S. sought treatment with Skoun of her own initiative later on that she realized she could be referred to the NAC. Though K.S. criticized the committee, saying she had felt “on trial” and had therefore hidden the true depths of her drug issues, the treatment she received eventually resulted in the criminal charges being dropped.
As someone who has struggled with substance addiction for several years, K.S. said Hammoud’s decision “makes you feel like they actually care about the person” and recognized “what addiction actually means.”
“It’s not something you should be beaten up for or thrown behind bars for,” she said. “You should be treated for dependencies and mental illness.”
K.S., a university student at the time, falls within the overwhelming majority of those arrested for drug abuse, 80 percent of whom are between the ages of 18 to 35, Mteirik told The Daily Star.
Psychiatrist Rabih Chammay, head of the Health Ministry’s National Mental Health Program and the Health Ministry’s representative on the NAC, said Hammoud’s circular reinforced the notion of addiction as a health issue and “not a crime.”
While he believed the move to be a step forward, Chammay ultimately called for decriminalization.
“If we want to base our judgment on evidence and science, I think we should be heading toward the decriminalization of substance abuse to ensure there is no one behind bars for it,” he told The Daily Star.
Chammay explained that decriminalization is not the same as legalizing drugs. “Decriminalization is saying that if the person is caught using any illegal substance, they are not charged under the penal code,” he said. “They might be eventually fined ... and then referred to health sector ... or any other structure to give them support.”
On the other hand, he added, “Legalization is saying it’s like alcohol or other legal substances. This is not what we’re advocating for.”
Mikdashi agreed, adding that while some people may not require treatment, accepting to go through the process was better than “useless incarceration” and was a step in the right direction.