The opening crawl of the movie “Reefer Madness” served as a morality tale to parents of the Silent Generation: “…the new drug menace is destroying the youth of America in alarmingly increasing numbers. Marihuana [sic] is that drug – a violent narcotic – an unspeakable scourge – The Real Public Enemy Number One!” The narrative represents a viewpoint on how to limit drug prevalence in the United States – complete abstinence – otherwise drug users will commit horrific crimes. The 80-year-old film is useful in that it shows just how much the world has changed its perception of illicit drug use.
Nowadays, substance abuse – including alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs – is considered by the World Health Organization as a mental health disorder. Lebanon’s Ministry of Public Health agrees. In 2015, the ministry introduced a five year roadmap to improve mental health treatment, including substance abuse.
International bodies overseeing narcotics – including the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime and the International Narcotics Control Board – lay out the best practices of drug enforcement that many of the world’s police agencies follow. The approach is to be a balanced one – stem the source of drug production to reduce its supply and raise its street cost while also going after consumers.
Targeting illegal drug manufacturing facilities and individuals – traffickers and dealers – is challenging but necessary to stop drugs at the source. In this regard Lebanon has destroyed drug crops, raided known drug factories and made arrests. But there are still large swaths of the country with a relatively low level of state control, while instability along the Lebanese-Syrian border is an enabling factor.
That Lebanon is not able to stamp out drug production and trafficking is frustrating, even more so when looking at statistics on user-related drug arrests. Rather than receiving their right to rehabilitation treatment, offenders are locked up. Lebanon’s drug law 673/1998 incorporates rehabilitation as an alternative to prison time but there are problems in the law’s application. The problem is, on the one hand, that cases of drug use are not being heard by a rehabilitation committee [see story Crime and punishment].
On the other hand Lebanon does not have the health infrastructure to cope with rehabilitation demand generated by drug-use arrests. Executive agrees with the view that there needs to be a better and faster process to determining rehabilitation referrals – The Legal Agenda, a local non-governmental organization monitoring Lebanon’s judicial system, recommends the committee be expanded to serve different geographically-located user populations and it must be funded. The health ministry’s five year plan should address the lack of rehabilitation provision.
Since the early 2000s a more progressive approach to drug use has been championed in some countries – Portugal being an example. Drug use and possession in that country is still illegal but is instead punished with administrative penalties (fines or community service) rather than criminal ones (prison time). The idea goes back to drug use as a mental health issue, one that must be treated through rehabilitation. Short of legalizing cannabis and all its products, Lebanon should decriminalize personal use and possession. There are international benchmarks on the classification of drugs and the amounts that define user possession and intent to sell. Lebanon should use these benchmarks as a guide to define decriminalization.
At the very least, Lebanon must amend its drug law to distinguish between possession of any drug for personal use and possession with intent to sell. Portugal considers a 10-day supply as personal use warranting only administrative penalties, any amount more than that warrants criminal penalties. Amending the law to remove facilitating drug use as criminally punishable is also necessary – sharing a joint with a friend or giving them drugs for free can land someone in jail for a minimum of five years.
Best practice in rehabilitating drug users accepts them at their level of readiness to bring them closer to a healthier lifestyle even if that means accepting that some of them will continue to use temporarily. But there is a legitimate need for society to be protected from people that do become violent while under the influence of dissociative drugs (e.g. hallucinogens). With harm reduction programs the aim is not to eliminate drug use but to reduce the negative consequences (to personal health, to interpersonal relations, to livelihood, and with the law) of drug abuse, and there is evidence that harm reduction programs do have positive impacts. The programs can serve to reintegrate users into society whereas criminalization may disenfranchise or disbar them from social welfare programs (e.g. education and housing). NGOs in Lebanon can and are already providing this public good. The risk is always that these programs are too little but are better than nothing.
If Lebanon is to curb illicit drug manufacturing and trafficking then it must go after the big fish – the tycoons living large. Recreational users and those that have become addicted need medical help more than an extended stay in the clanker, and prison time spent for drug use can ruin a person’s life. Decriminalizing personal use and possession of cannabis and its products ensures recreational users don’t end up in prison in the first place.