DRUG POLICY: The need for decriminalization

Uganda happens to be one of the countries which criminalizes against drug use as per The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act 2015.

This Criminalisation has led to stigmatisation. There is need to move to a health or rehabilitation-led approach where people will accept to support people who use drugs. In essence, proper care is required rather than criminalization. Society at large needs a supportive architecture of compassion to enable perceptions to change towards drug users.

There is need to change the NDPS Act 2015 to decriminalize possession for personal use (and, in some cases, petty, non-violent drug crime), reducing harm and allowing the police and legal system to focus their resources on drug dealers and organized crime.

Decriminalization does not imply a lack of consequences.

Conversely, it does permit are habilitation/health based, person-centred approach to be taken, and stops the person having the stigma of being criminalized.

There are many ways to decriminalize, or at least reduce criminalization that have been implemented in other countries. There is no ‘one-size-fits all’, prescriptive solution. There is need for Uganda to find a lower level of repression, one that abandons the stance on removing the rights of people to choose which drugs are acceptable.

Alcohol and cigarettes are dangerous, addictive substances with huge personal and social costs attached, yet society does not seek to control simple possession or use via the criminal law. With the passing and signing into law The TobaccoAct 2015, Uganda, restrictions were imposed on smoking in public. To be specific 50 metres away from the public. However, little has been done to enforce this; Save for the January 2017 crackdown on Shisha smokers in bars around Kampala. It is worth noting that this happened a year after the Act had been passed into law.

Markets for cigarettes and alcohol are legal and regulated. Though important to distinguish decriminalization from regulation; Regulating markets can remove them from the criminal sphere. If done properly, regulation can help States minimize harm by moderating the production and sales environment in the same way that exists for chemicals, medicines and food.

Prohibitionist policies don’t demonstrably impede drug markets, but they do have other effects. They affect the way professionals engage with drug users. If a service provider becomes aware that a person is in possession of drugs, they must take steps to address this to ensure they are not exposing staff to criminal liability. Under current laws, users are by definition criminals and criminalization is stigmatizing. It can contribute to drug users remaining cautious about accessing services. Thus, there is a fundamental contradiction in the current system, where drug use is recognized as a health issue, but in order to receive assistance for that issue it is necessary for the person to be labelled as a criminal.

International examples show us that there is no increase in crime associated with decriminalisation.

In Portugal, possession for personal use was decriminalized and responsibility was moved from the criminal justice system and placed under the Ministry for Health. The health administration authority has the power to apply sanctions. In practice, the substanceordrug is not the issue but the pattern of use of the individual. Each person needs to be dealt with on a case by case basis.

The current system is much more focused on the person, and because the function is under the Ministry of Health, people are more willing to take the guidance being offered. It also allows police to focus on and deal with supply rather than possession.

The focus in Portugal now is clearly on health issues and health problems. Under criminalization, if a drug user comes for help, he is admitting that he’s a serial criminal. Without this stigma, all other interventions are made easier and more accessible to those who need them. Millions of Ugandans are in urgent need of these health services and are dying out silently due to criminalization.

Health experts believe drug use in Uganda is on the increase and is being propagated as trendy amongst the youth and corporates.

However, these drugs bear negative health effects which most users are ignorant of.

Marijuana alone, it’s over consumption can lead to insomnia or increased sleep, depression and possible suicidal thoughts.

It’s against this backdrop that I do call for decriminalisation, for they (the drug users) need rehabilitation and health therapy and not being locked up or brought to book, for it doesn’t help them and neither does it help the country.

Instead it wastes a way a generation that could have been saved.

It’s worth noting that, In Portugal, decriminalization was intended to make things be more fluid. It’s important to note that when possession was considered a crime, the courts were generally applying the same sanctions, which are now applied by the Ministry for Health. However, now the sanctions come without the criminal record, the stigma and the expending of large amounts of resources.

As a parting shot, rehabilitation over retribution and just laws to help those already in need. Thus, the need for DECRIMINALISATION.

A drop of ink may make a million think.

Contributed by Hillary Kururagyire

hillarykbainny@gmail.com