NGO seeking to decriminalise drug use in Lebanon

An online survey conducted by Skoun in 2018 of people aged 18-35 indicated that 44% of those who responded said they were for ending criminalisation of drug use.
Saturday 20/07/2019
Harsh measures. A Lebanese customs officer shows a confiscated block of hashish in Beirut.(AFP)
Harsh measures. A Lebanese customs officer shows a confiscated block of hashish in Beirut.(AFP)

BEIRUT - The Support Don’t Punish campaign for decriminalising the use of illicit substances is very relevant in Lebanon where the law on drug use and the jumble of the criminal justice system harms young Lebanese whose future is often jeopardised by judicial flaws, the NGO Skoun said.

Skoun, which runs addiction treatment centres, has been strongly lobbying for amending the criminal law regarding drug use, with punishment ranging from 3 months to 3 years in prison, in the case of personal consumption, along with a fine.

“The Support Don’t Punish campaign advocates for policies that are based on human rights and public health, especially for youth ranging from 16 to 35 years old, who constitute around 80% of those arrested, for use of illicit substance,” said Michelle Wazan, drug policy coordinator at Skoun.

“Our discourse is that people who use drugs have to be supported and not punished. Punishing people is counterproductive.”

Teenagers and young adults are regularly arrested by police in pubs or on the street for smoking marijuana or using an illicit substance occasionally for recreational reasons.

“If you get arrested and prosecuted for drug use it will be on your criminal record and for at least 3 years you cannot apply for a job or get housing loan or move on with your life,” Wazan said.

The complex Lebanese criminal justice system can add to the harm to young people, Wazan observed.

“During arrest people are traumatised, interrogated, humiliated and come under tremendous psychological pressure. In many cases they stay beyond the legal limit of arrest, which is 4 days. Some stay for weeks and months because of red tape and judicial delays,” Wazan said.

“We are actively calling for decriminalising illicit substance use because we see on a daily basis the harms caused by treating that as a crime. I know of a student who missed his final exams and had to repeat the whole school year because he was arrested for a long time.”

The law on drugs allows users to decide on prison or addiction therapy when arrested. The law says illicit substance users can ask the Drug Addiction Committee (DAC) for therapy and referral to addiction treatment clinics but long procedures and reluctance by judges deprived many users, especially the youth, from benefiting from the part of the law, Wazan said.

“Following collective action by the civil society against the judicial hesitancy in applying this law, the court of appeal handed down a decision compelling judges to cease all legal proceedings against an illicit substance user willing to undergo treatment and to immediately refer the person to the DAC, leaving no room for judges to derogate from this decision,” Wazan said.

However, the Civil Observatory for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary said about 110 cases with substance use disorders out of the 2,709 of those arrested for drug use were referred to the DAC in 2014.

In addition to lobbying parliament to decriminalise substance use, Skoun and rights activists worked on the integration of substance use treatment centres into primary health care.

“We already operate a centre in the Rafik Hariri governmental hospital in Beirut and we will soon open a rehab centre in Baalbek governmental hospital and another in Tripoli,” Wazan said.

An online survey conducted by Skoun in 2018 of people aged 18-35 indicated that 44% of those who responded said they were for ending criminalisation of drug use, 16% said they didn’t know and 39% said they were against ending criminalisation. The survey results reported that 25% of the sample (3,274 respondents) said they tried at least once an illicit substance and 75% said they had never used any drugs.

Most people arrested for drug use have been smoking cannabis, such as hash and marijuana. An estimated 80% are aged 16-35.

“At Skoun we really believe that decriminalising personal substance use should be a priority for the state. A lot of young people are suffering from that. It creates many obstacles for the development of the country and the future of the youth,” Wazan said.

“We are not calling for the legalisation of drugs, their production or circulation. Decriminalising drug use is completely different.”

“Instead of spending state resources, in arresting, prosecuting and interrogating, it is better to place them in the public health system. If someone needs treatment, psychological support, assistance they should be able to get it free of charge,” she said.

Skoun was established in 2003 by two psychologists and a psychiatrist as an outpatient treatment centre for addictions of all kinds — drug, alcohol and behavioural addiction. Its team of six therapists and two psychiatrists delivered individualised support to 584 patients in 2017.

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