NGOs, ministries work to address dearth of drug treatment options
Published by The Daily Star
Original Article here.
BEIRUT: Residents of Lebanon seeking help with their drug problems will find no treatment options in Tripoli, and only one complete center between the southern cities of Sidon and Tyre, a 30-month study released Thursday found. Much like Lebanon’s administration and economy, drug treatment is centralized in the capital Beirut, in addition to nearby Kesrouan.
The “SILA” mapping project, or “link” in Arabic, was funded by the European Union and implemented by advocacy and drug treatment NGO the Skoun Lebanese Addictions Center, in partnership with Soins Infirmiers et Developpement Comunautaire, a group that works in drug and HIV prevention and harm reduction.
The study mapped five key areas in Lebanon – Sidon, Tyre, Kesrouan, Beirut and Tripoli. It was developed through in-depth discussions with organizations, and peer-to-peer interventions with local residents by a group of 30 young adults Skoun trained. Results were announced Thursday at a conference in Beirut called “Stakeholder Consultation: Key findings from mapping of treatment and prevention services.”
The project revealed a dearth of drug treatment and prevention options for the vast majority of Lebanese people residing outside of the capital, and an even greater shortage for women and LGBTQ groups.
This lack of treatment options contrasts with the thousands of arrests and hundreds of imprisonments made for drug crimes each year.
Ministries and leadership of the Internal Security Forces’ drug enforcement departments, however, say they have begun to address this grim reality.
A senior source in the ISF’s Central Drug Enforcement Office told The Daily Star that they were making efforts to move away from criminalizing drug use and toward treatment of offenders.
He said users would usually spend very little time in jail for drug abuse and a maximum of one month in prison in the case of repeat offenses in a short period of time.
The ISF is “keen” on referring users to treatment, he said, an option Skoun advocacy coordinator Sandy Mteirik said was in accordance with Lebanese law.
The source said the ISF was entirely focused on arresting dealers, but “almost all of our information is attained through informants” – users who are caught and interrogated – because “our abilities to follow and survey dealers are almost zero, while a user naming a dealer is convincing evidence in court.” This indicates that while the ISF says it is not seeking to arrest users, a major chunk of its drug enforcement program is based on confessions obtained from them – creating a dependency on and demand for the arrests.
“We don’t care at all about [arresting] the users, except for getting information from them leading us to a dealer,” the source said.
Referring to spontaneous checkpoints where many are arrested for drug possession, the source said, “We tell [undercover police and Information Branch detectives], ‘Don’t do it, you know our prisons are filled with [drug users].’”
“But [according to the law,] if they find even a small [amount of drugs], they have to arrest [the suspect].”
Maj. Haytham Soueid, who heads the Drug Enforcement office in the South, similarly told conferencegoers, “I think we all agree that the solution is not to throw drug users in jail.”
He said roughly 4,000 people had been arrested for drug abuse in 2016 and 5,000 in 2017.
“We expect to go above 5,000 this year, and that doesn’t mean we’re doing a better job – it’s something scary. It shows the amount of abuse is rising.”
While the ISF said it was keen on treatment, Mteirik said the option was often unavailable or unknown to both suspects and law enforcement.
She said users were often imprisoned because neither they nor the ISF nor the judiciary knew about the treatment option they could be referred to instead.
“Public prosecutors are often not implementing the law, while nearly all [treatment] centers are in Beirut and Kesrouan, which can be [unfeasible for many individuals],” she told The Daily Star. “[Public prosecutors] also sometimes don’t know of service providers in the area, and that is why this platform is so important,” she said, referring to a new online directory being developed by the Health Ministry.
The directory’s aim is to share drug treatment information, expertise and practices between relevant institutions – including the judiciary and the ISF.
The directory was announced by Rabih Chammay, head of the National Mental Health Program at the Health Ministry. He said a survey will first be sent to drug-treatment and prevention-related organizations and that the information gathered will become the directory.
A draft version of the survey was presented at Thursday’s conference, where concerns were raised about possible discrimination based on race, gender or sexual orientation at some centers, with stakeholders requesting that a question be added to the survey to screen for this.
Responding to concerns about the privacy of information gathered in the survey, Chammay said that some aspects would remain confidential while others would be public.
Government funding for drug treatment remains meager. Chammay said the Health Ministry had only 22 beds available for drug treatment across Lebanon. He did acknowledge that talks between the ISF, ministries and NGOs were taking place more often and there was a will to address the issue.
Groups at the conference were markedly enthusiastic about the online directory as a step toward realizing better treatment and - potentially - opening the door to wider reforms.
Soueid at one point indicated his regret that the ISF was often restricted by laws that mandated the criminalization of drug use.
Chammay responded, to applause: “And we will work with you to change these laws.”