Maldives: Future Search - Towards a Maldives without Drugs

Thirty drug-related deaths in 2008 in Maldives' 300,000 population, mainly in its capital Male'. Fourteen deaths in the first months of 2009. Eighty per cent of Maldives' prison population of around 900 inmates serve sentences on drug-related offences. Each and every household in Male' is affected by drug use according to the members of SWAD, the "Society of Women against Drugs". Drug use is taking a high toll on Maldives' young population and their families.

The new Maldivian Government in place since late 2008, has pledged to pave the way for a drug-free Maldives. To this end, the Vice-President called upon stakeholders for a Future Search Action Planning Meeting, held in Male from 15 through 17 August 2009 to design comprehensive future action for a drug-free Maldives with all society members involved. Some 70 stakeholders from allover the society participated, including legal experts, service providers, law enforcement officers, policy makers, private business people, youth, recovering drug users and international partners.

Whereas each of the groups could take pride in already having achieved tangible results in their respective area of work, there was also broad acknowledgement and regret of having not done enough, both individually and collectively. This recognition plus the analysis of the Maldivian situation with regard to drug use and trafficking laid the basis for an agreed upon identification of the vision and future action towards a drugs-free Maldives, including action in the areas of prevention, treatment and rehabilitation, advocacy, research, legal review, law enforcement through collective action by the Government, private -public partnerships, the society and its organizations at large and the international cooperation.

Being my ever-first visit to the Maldives, the event was overwhelming and enlightening at the same time. I was tremendously impressed by the persistent engagement of all stakeholders to find more commensurate measures to deal with drug use vis-à-vis drug trafficking. I was especially touched by the recovering drug users and their families. And this because of their open recognition that drug addiction, even after being treated carries a life-long risk and potential of relapse and hence their daily battle for recognition of the need for - voluntary- access to treatment and rehabilitation for current drug users.

Both drug use and drug trafficking are criminal offences under the current Maldivian law. Although a right to treatment and rehabilitation has been established in 1995, this is only being granted for first-time offenders, when not more than one gram of the consumed drug is found and when no other criminal charges are pending. Should the first-time offender after rehabilitation relapse, there are no more chances for rehabilitation and the sentence builds up by six years per offence.

Being faced with currently more than 200 drug offenders in prison who are not eligible for treatment, a new draft law is under discussion. The legal group of the conference committed at the end of the workshop to work speedily with parliamentarians to find a soon passing of new legislation with a more human face for drug users.

During my four days stay in Male', I also met the members of SWAD "Society of Women against Drugs" mostly mothers, wives and sisters of drug users, either imprisoned for drug offences or receiving treatment at the first ever methadone clinic in Male' initiated by UNODC in cooperation with the government and the civil society. Their testimonies are heartening. Several of them have more than one son or daughter in prison, sometimes for a second or third time meaning that some of them serve sentences of up to life imprisonment for repeated drug-use and the accompanying drug possession. Many of these women head their households, take care of several children and grand children and carry alone the burden of stigmatized drug use in the society. SWAD - with the support of UNODC - helps them to carry it not only psychologically, but also in their daily dealings with the national drug control administration - which decides over eligibility for treatment - as well as with the medical services which provide substitution treatment.

The Future Search Conference ended with a unique statement of collective commitment by the Maldivian stakeholders to keep engaged together towards a future without drugs. To do so they can count with a commensurate commitment of their international partners, especially the UN system and the European Commission.

Written by Cristina Albertin, UNODC Representative for South Asia on her first visit to Maldives and participation in the Government- UNICEF hosted Future Search Conference on Maldives: Towards a future without drugs (15 to 17 August 2009)