Bhutan: Mission to the elusive kingdom

Travelling to Bhutan, although for only four days, is like a dream coming true: a Buddhist kingdom of the size of Switzerland with 0.6 million inhabitants, nestled in the Himalaya between China and India. Its images of snow-capped mountains reaching up to 7, 000 meters of valleys with terraced paddy fields, tea gardens and pine-covered slopes and over 2,000 scattered traditional fortresses, temples and monasteries made of mud and wood with painted surfaces. Also its red-robed monks remind one of ancient times and evoke longing for peace and tranquility.

Bhutan is known for its extraordinary development policy enshrined in the principle of 'Gross National Happiness' aiming at the overall wellbeing and happiness of its people rather than economic growth. Bhutan was unified as a kingdom only a century ago. It opened up in the 1960s building for the first time roads which could be used by cars, - roads that today are maintained in a n admirable state. In protection of its culture and environment, Bhutan limits tourist numbers to avoid negative impacts of mass tourism as other countries in the region. It has experienced and managed its natural resources sustainably, - as per Constitution, a forest cover of 70 per cent needs to be maintained.

I undertook my first mission to Bhutan to attend the stakeholder meeting to discuss the findings of the UNODC supported ever first National Baseline Assessment of Drugs and Controlled Substance use in Bhutan. UNODC's counterpart, the Bhutan Narcotics Control Agency (BNCA) came into being in 2006 and since then has made remarkable progress in addressing drug use in Bhutan: three drop-in-centres were set up in different parts of the country and the ever-first Government-led rehabilitation centre was opened in Thimpu three months ago.

With the picturesque idea of Bhutan as the last Shangri-la, who would think that drug use could be an issue in Bhutan? In effect, two UNODC-supported rapid assessments conducted in 2005 and 2008 in Thimpu and Phuentsholing brought to light that there is drug use in Bhutan and confirmed that prevalence rates of drug use are low - compared to other countries. Now, the findings of the first nationwide baseline study strengthened evidence that glue-sniffing, the use of alcohol and of cannabis and of a variety of pharmaceuticals can be found in 14 of 20 Dzongkhags (districts). More important, for the first time this study found that heroin is also now being used in Bhutan, although no heroin seizures have yet been reported in Bhutan. Also injecting drug use has started with mainly pharmaceuticals, another reason for concern. So far, there was a widespread belief in Bhutan that the country in a way was sealed against heroin and injecting drug use, a myth that now has been seriously challenged.

All stakeholders to the meeting, especially the BNCA under guidance of the Ministry of Health, Royal Government of Bhutan has expressed its commitment to act and not to let the problem grow. The findings of the study call for the formulation of a national drug control strategy, which needs to cater both to the needs of those who already need treatment, men and women, and to those who can still be reached to avoid initiation of drugs. Despite low prevalence rates, these by no means are reason for complacency, they rather call for joint action- to keep them low or reduce them further. The BNCA wants to address the issue urgently, using the outcome of the study. The support of UNODC and its constituents is needed to help Bhutan preserve its development notion of happiness without drugs!

UNODC supports the Bhutan Narcotics Control Agency (BNCA) to implement programmes on drug demand reduction, prevention, care and treatment and rehabilitation of drug users. Currently, it supports the BNCA in its first ever National Baseline Assessment of Drugs and Controlled Substance use in Bhutan (2009-2010) under the joint UN (UNAIDS, UNODC and WHO) Regional Project - Prevention of Transmission of HIV amongst Drug Users in SAARC Countries.

The current UNODC work in Bhutan is possible through the contribution of the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAid).

Written by Cristina Albertin, UNODC Representative for South Asia on her visit to Bhutan