For the past two decades, Bangladesh has struggled to find an effective and sustainable solution to substance abuse, which has had deleterious effects on the country’s development.
Severe drug addiction has affected the productivity of a major portion of its human resources, especially the youth.
Government measures to address the challenge primarily consist of cracking down on the distribution of illegal narcotics.
However, the impact on the health of addicts has largely been neglected by the authorities.
According to the Association for the Prevention of Drug Abuse (Manas), the current number of drug addicted people in Bangladesh is around 6,600,000, while the Department of Narcotics Control (DNC) reports that the number is around 5,000,000.
However, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), in a program held last June, stated that more than 7,000,000 people suffer from drug addiction in Bangladesh.
Also Read- Female drug abusers most vulnerable among addicted population
Another study by Manas reveals that minors, meaning youths under the age of 16, account for around 25% of drug addicts.
Drug addiction has fuelled an increased rate of dropping out of educational institutions, and anti-social behaviour is also on the rise.
Meanwhile, law enforcers are overburdened with a large number of narcotics related cases.
Sources from the Bangladesh Police Headquarters reported that at least 98,984 narcotics related cases were filed in 2017. The total number of the cases was 213,529.
This means that at least 46% of all cases filed last year were related to narcotics.
Additional DIG Shah Alam, who has a long history of working against drug addiction, told the Dhaka Tribune: “63.5% of the drug addicted consists of youth aged over 15 years.
“The addiction has spread from cities to deep into villages, and a new approach is needed to uproot the menace from the society.”
A recent report also stated that one out of every 17 youths is addicted to drugs.
Increased drug trade in prisons accompanies rise in drug-related convictions
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Data revealed on March 19 this year showed that over one-third (35.97%) of inmates have been imprisoned due to drug related charges.
Bangladesh Prisons have 77,124 prisoners in 68 jails throughout the country even though their official housing capacity is 36,614 prisoners. Among the total number of prisoners, drug related inmates stood at 27,764.
An official of deputy jailer rank told the Dhaka Tribune: “Till June 2016, the jails had around 7,667 drug addicted inmates. The number is much higher now and a good number of them are drug peddlers.
“In the year 2016, we have found 3,441 inmates to be involved in substance abuse or drug possession inside the jail.”
At a press briefing on March 19, Inspector General (IG) of Prisons Brig Gen Syed Iftekhar Uddin admitted that despite having strict security, illegal drugs are entering the prisons.
Over the past year, prison authorities in Bangladesh took punitive actions, including departmental actions and job dismissals, against as many as 20 jail guards for abetting illegal drug-trade inside the jails.
A deputy jailer, on condition of anonymity, pointed out that the jails do not have proper treatment facilities for drug addicts, and no psychiatrist has been deployed in the jails as yet.
Commenting on the issue, Officer-in-Charge of Mirpur police station Nazrul Islam said: “The sheer number of drug related cases does not portray the real picture of drug addiction in the country.”
Innovative approaches needed to tackle the drug problem
Professor Zia Rahman, chair of the Department of Criminology, Dhaka University, told the Dhaka Tribune: “No law in the country has specifically criminalized being addicted to a substance. The problem is that the existing laws criminalize actions such as drug possession. Such laws usually affect addicts.
“Judges have also shown a tendency to apply more severe sentencing or mandatory minimum penalties in crimes that involve drug offenses.”
The professor further said: “The time has come to rethink our approach on the matter, not only from a security perspective, but from a health perspective too. We need to return the addicts to the country’s pool of human resources.”
Commenting on the matter, Arup Ratan Chowdhury, the founding president of Manas, said: “The government needs to take a comprehensive approach to preventing drug addiction, so that no one is left behind.
“Each and everyone from an addict’s family to the ministries concerned should be involved in the rehabilitation program.”
Several psychiatrists have pointed out that decriminalizing drug addiction and designing a more holistic rehabilitation process would be an effective way to lessen drug abuse.
Mekhala Sarkar, psychiatrist and an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Department of National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), said: “The addicted should receive treatment from trained psychiatrists for better results.
“If an addicted person gets proper treatment, chances of that person of becoming addicted to drugs again drop significantly.”
Is drug decriminalization a viable option?
According to a number of reports published by the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), the phenomenon of drug abuse requires societies to dedicate resources to evidence-based prevention, education, and interventions, including treatment and rehabilitation.
Although such activities can be resource-intensive, studies have shown that for every $1 spent, good prevention programs can save governments up to $10 in subsequent costs.
In Bangladesh, however, the rehabilitation process is in need of significant improvement.
A number of experts have characterized the current resources for rehabilitation as inadequate and ineffective, and stated that reducing drug addiction across the country would require massive changes in several sectors.
The Ministry of Home Affairs is currently playing the lead role in fighting drug addiction. Law enforcers and the Department of Narcotics Control (DNC) are jointly working under the ministry.
Also Read- Decriminalization of drug use: A better option for Bangladesh?
The rehabilitation centres are managed by the DNC, and the effectiveness of the treatment offered at those facilities remains questionable.
Under these circumstances, experts believe that the whole rehabilitation process needs to be reformed, and the government should consider decriminalizing drug use.
Ashique Selim, a specialized addiction psychiatrist, told the Dhaka Tribune: “While practising abroad, we witnessed that addiction treatment and rehabilitation processes involve the coordination of relevant authorities such as the Health Ministry, Home Ministry, and judicial surveillance.
“The level of the addiction was determined first and then, in accordance, the treatment for the drug addict was prescribed.”
He further said: “Most addicts would prefer going to rehabilitation instead of jail. If they get proper treatment there, most of them will have a high chance of returning to a normal life.
“The existing system in the country lacks all these criteria and so the situation is worsening day by day.”
Speaking in favour of reform, the psychiatrist said: “It is high time to adopt the decriminalization-of-drugs approach in Bangladesh.”
When contacted about this issue, Assistant Director of DNC Mehedi Hasan said: “As the designated nodal agency of the government, the DNC is to deal with all aspects relating to drug problem in the country.
“If the government adopts decriminalization policy the authorities would implement it.”
Meanwhile, speaking to the correspondent, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said a new draft Drug Prevention Act is being formulated and will have a greater focus on addressing drug addiction.
If the act passes, it would have massive impact in reducing drug abuse and illicit drug trade.
Meanwhile, DNC Director General Jalal Uddin Ahmed said: “The department has proposed that the death penalty should be given to people found guilty of peddling yaba and some other illicit drugs.”
According to DNC insiders, spending related to drug abuse is on the rise.
In a previous study conducted in 2013, the DNC revealed that addicts are taking drugs worth Tk20cr daily, and Tk600 crore monthly.