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Domestic legislation behind the times

The Nation spoke to Sri Lanka Standards Institution (SLSI) Chairman Dr. A.R.L. Wijesekera, former Government Analyst and Consultant (in narcotics), National Dangerous Drug Control Board (NDDCB), on the mandate of the National Narcotics Laboratory (NNL), affiliated to the NDDCB and international legislation pertaining to narcotics.

Following are excerpts:
By Randima Attygalle
Q: What functional tasks come within the purview of the National Narcotics Laboratory?
A:
The National Narcotics Laboratory (NNL) is ‘accredited’ by UNODC and it is the only laboratory in the country dedicated to the analysis of narcotics. Although the Government Analyst’s Department is also empowered to analyse narcotics, it is among one of the many tasks performed by it, whereas the NNL, which is an integral part of the NDDCB, is solely committed to the examination and analysis of narcotics.

Our functions go beyond examination of narcotics. We facilitate all law enforcement authorities, including the Sri Lanka Police, Excise officers, Customs officers and Forest Department Officers in achieving the ultimate end of combating and minimising the usage of narcotics. With this objective in mind, the laboratory is entrusted with the tasks of conducting demonstrations and other awareness programmes for the above authorities.

For example, we assist Customs to detect various kinds of narcotics by their appearance. A drug like LSD for instance, comes as ‘blotter-acid’ paper. This is similar to wallpaper and its pictorial representation is so varied and unusual that it can mislead the ignorant. This paper is found in a range of designs from Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse to all kinds of religious symbols, flowers, fruits, etc. The culprit can escape under the pretext that he is importing children’s wallpaper. This paper is segmented into stamp-like divisions, each of which contains 20-50 microgrammes of LSD.

NNL is the only laboratory in the country which carries out testing of urine for determination of drug metabolites to meet certain migration requirements and certain employment criteria such as those working on ships. In addition, we also carry out extensive research. We have published a considerable number of papers on ‘Degradation of Heroin’ for instance, which have been recognised in many international scientific journals.

Q: Is the NNL on par with the Government Analyst’s Department?
A:
Yes, as far as narcotics analysis is concerned. We are soundly equipped to carry out all narcotics-related operations carried out by the Government Analyst’s Department. Unfortunately, our legislation empowers only the Government Analyst to examine and report on seized samples of narcotics. Thus, it is only the report of the Government Analyst which is legally valid for prosecution. The NNL is not still empowered to issue reports for a prosecution.

Besides narcotics, NNL also assists Customs in examining pharmaceutical preparations and other samples seized by Excise officers. However, these findings will not be valid for prosecution. Therefore, we are anticipating legislation which will empower the NNL to issue reports for prosecution in the near future.
With around 30,000 arrests per year, the Government Analyst’s Department is over-burdened and NNL is looking forward to contributing more tangibly to assist the Department with reports on seizures, thereby expediting cases in this regard. NDDCB Chairman D.P. Mendis, PC, has given much assistance in upgrading the laboratory.

Q: Can you shed light upon international legislation pertaining to narcotics acceded by Sri Lanka?
A:
There are three main international conventions to which Sri Lanka is a signatory. The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 spells out all the narcotics and substances defined as narcotics. Increased concern over the harmful effects of mood-altering synthetic substances led to the adoption of the Convention on Psychotropic Substances in 1971, which recognised a list of psychotropic substances such as LSD, amphetamines, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, etc.

Despite these two conventions, the world community realised that there was still a rising trend in drug abuse. Thus in 1988, a new convention, titled The United Nation’s Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic, was introduced to restrict the free movement of narcotics. This provides provisions for the monitoring of certain precursors, all of which have other legal uses.

For example, acetic anhydride, which is used in the manufacture of heroin, is used in the manufacture of paracetemol, in the paint industry, in the leather industry, etc. Since Sri Lanka is also a signatory to the above legal instruments, it is important to get our domestic legislation in place to accommodate the provisions of these conventions.

Q: What areas of local legislation related to combating of narcotics should be strengthened, in your opinion?
A:
According to our present legislation, only the possession of heroin, morphine, opium, cannabis and cocaine receive deterrent punishment. All other narcotics are excluded, which I believe is a lacuna. Most of these excluded drugs were not known at the time the present legislation was enacted. A clear case is the much abused recreational drug, Ecstasy, which is a methamphetamine (MDMA). Therefore, it is time that domestic legislation is enacted to fall in line with contemporary world legislation without delay.

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The war against drugs

By Rathindra Kuruwita
The main drug-related problem in Sri Lanka is the number of wrong perceptions associated with drug use and rehabilitation, according to Dr. Manoj Fernando of Sri Lanka Sumithrayo.
“There are many notions prevalent in the Sri Lankan community, which have many negative effects,” he asserted. In his opinion, many beliefs held by society encourage addiction and prevent rehabilitation by disempowering the user.
“For instance, there is a concept that if you use heroin once, you are addicted, and if you don’t use the drug the next day, there will be withdrawal symptoms in the form of acute physical pain,” he said.

“To have withdrawal symptoms one has to be to reach the ‘chemical addiction’ phase and 90% of Sri Lankan drug users have not reached that phase. That takes at least five years of continuous drug use. But many people who have used drugs once or twice assume that they are dependent on the drug,” he explained.

The first step
Despite the actions of the government, perpetual pep talk of religious leaders and social stigma associated with drug abuse, the number of drug users has increased steadily over the last two decades in Sri Lanka.
“There are many key factors that may influence a person to experiment with drugs. One might be the association between drugs and adventure. For some odd reason, people who have had no experience of drugs assume that drugs enable someone to do things that they cannot do when they are not on drugs and in a normal state.”
‘Under the influence’ is a term that is familiar to us and the tendency to excuse the intoxicated is another reason that encourages abuse. “Many people think that people are not responsible for what they do when they

consume narcotics. While this is completely untrue, it provides the user with a good excuse, Dr. Fernando pointed out.
“Another reason is the unforeseen manipulation of drug lords. They pay huge sums of money to artists and make them promote the drug culture and associate drugs with pleasure. Sokari by Chinthy that links sexual pleasure with cannabis and Pata Pata Mal mal by Iraj and Killer B are two examples that come to my mind,” he added.
Many claim that many take on drugs because of peer pressure and a weak person could be easily influenced by friends who entice them to use drugs. “They may feel that in order to fit in, they should imitate their friends. But one cannot point fingers at peer pressure and say people get addicted to drugs because they hang out with people who use drugs. In the end, it’s up to the individual to choose what’s good for them,” Dr. Fernando said.

Kicking the habit
Rehabilitation: the image that comes to mind is an institution somewhat similar to a prison where drug addicts are kept ‘in captivity’ by force.
“People think that keeping an individual in a drug free environment for a period of time would automatically lead to their recovery. But unfortunately this is not the case,” commented Dr. Fernando.
“There are thousands of people in open air prison camps. They remain clean inside these facilities but when they are released, they quickly return to repeating their mistakes. In my opinion, keeping addicts away from drugs by force is equivalent to trying stop a relationship by force; we only end up increasing desire. The only way to ‘rehabilitate’ is by changing the mindset of the addicts.”

A popular view is that a drug addict must go to a rehabilitation centre in order to overcome his craving. But some raise questions as to whether doing so makes it more difficult for the addict to overcome his habits by taking away his self confidence.

“There are many people who stop using drugs on their own. They take a decision and they stop without ever visiting rehabilitation centres,” Dr. Fernando said. “But many choose to ignore that and focus on the desperation and misery and brainwash people into believing that visiting a rehabilitation centre is a must.”
“According to the modern medical thought, rehabilitation is achieved through empowering a person. He or she should be given the conviction that they are in control. They should feel that they can stop when they want to,” he said. “The most important thing is to change the illusions of the mind.
Especially the illusion that once you use drugs, it’s impossible to stop. This will also minimise the chances of relapsing.”

Path to normalcy
We need to look at the society as a whole rather than focus on the individual addicts, asserted Dr. Fernando. “If we can change the mindset of the people and make them lose their illusions and misconceptions about drugs and drug addicts, we can minimise the number of people getting addicted.”

He said different organisations use many methods. Some use a method similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, while others use religion and some centres use drug substitution. However, he emphasised that giving psychological support and changing behaviour is the best method.
There is a growing trend of looking towards religion to find solutions to the drug menace but Dr. Fernando is skeptical of this approach.

“True drug rehabilitation occurs when a person takes a conscious decision to stop after a proper understanding. Many people who have stopped following this method are unhappy. I’ve met many who say, ‘Alcohol and drugs are good. They make me happy. But I can’t break the promise I made to God/Buddha.’ As you can see, this approach depends on the individual’s ability to adhere to his vows. This method also makes the individual feel powerless because it’s not he who’s making the choice.”

“The problem with Sri Lanka is that we are slow to learn and implement new methods. Drug rehabilitation has evolved but we still use methods that are a decade old. There’s a lot that the government should do. They should at least implement these methods in government-controlled facilities,” Dr. Fernando added.

****

Confessions of a reformed drug addict

By Rathindra Kuruwita
We have all heard about how people have ruined their lives because of drugs and read thousands of confessions, interviews and apologies by former drug addicts.
Why do some people do drugs? Some want to experiment and try something new. Some feel depressed or bored. Some people like high-risk situations. Some think drugs would help solve their problems.
I met Keshan*, a former drug addict, and asked him why he started using drugs, about his life with drugs and what made him kick the habit. He sported messy, long hair but he effortlessly exuded confidence, poise, and a hint of quiet elegance. As far as first impressions go, one would quickly assume that his life was easy and refined.
“I first started experimenting with drugs in my late teens. A friend of mine was doing speed and heroin and seemed to be in control. He spoke of pushing himself to the extreme and pulling away just before destruction and he seemed to be doing just that,” Keshan said.
“I had just broken up with my girlfriend and I went to meet him, to talk, not to do drugs. There he was surrounded by books and CDs, looking cool, like he did not have a care in the world. Suddenly I thought of giving drugs a try and when I asked him, he just ignored me and started reading. When I said I would give him cash, without a word he gave me the drugs. This should have been an indication of what would happen to me but I thought I was in control.”
That was just the beginning – before he became an addict. So how many hits did it take before Keshan’s free will was replaced by need? “When I left his place, I thought that would be it. But I found myself at his place again two days later,” he said.
“Soon I started going out on my own to procure drugs. As my tolerance grew, I needed more money to fund my habit and I started stealing from home, petty theft followed. My friend was always there offering me tips on how to support the habit,” he added, with a wry smile.
I had to ask whether the tendency to blame someone else was common among addicts. Replied Keshan, “I’m not blaming him but the fact that he had drugs with him at that particular time did make a difference in my life.”
“The life I was living became more difficult day by day. I would just lie in bed staring at the ceiling when I was not out trying to score. There were times when I thought ‘I’m done.’ However, withdrawal is a more powerful motivator than blackmail or violence could ever be. The drug takes you back every day. Hold your arms out, close your eyes. You’ll walk unconsciously in the right direction. For that’s what you become, zombie.
“In the end the death of a close friend of mine opened my eyes. His death and the monotony of the life I was leading made me say ‘enough,’” Keshan said. “But the real battle is when you clean up. It’s so easy to relapse. Because you feel so low, you want to top yourself up. Everyday becomes a constant battle.”
Keshan explained that people like him find different alternatives to replace drugs – some look towards religion and some seek solace in music or travelling, while others depend on alcohol or “going through women like they used to go through drugs,” he pointed out.
The thing about drug abuse is that each user has a unique set of reasons to start using drugs. It maybe due to the youthful will to experiment, because all their heroes did drugs, or because the person wanted to escape the mind-numbing boredom of modern life. As Keshan said, “There are moments when I still think that drugs are preferable to a tedious evening drinking beer with my white collar acquaintances.”
(*Name changed to protect identity)

****

Sri Lanka: geographically vulnerable

Special emphasis needed on rehabilitation

Deputy Solicitor General Dappula De Livera shed light upon the legal provisions related to narcotics in the country. Following are excerpts of an interview with The Nation:

By Randima Attygalle
Q: What are the main legislative enactments which govern the illicit trafficking of narcotics in Sri Lanka?
A:
Act No. 13 of 1984 is considered to be the turning point of local legislation related to narcotics. This is an amendment to the Poison, Opium and Dangerous Drugs Ordinance. Although this Ordinance was not repealed, it has been amended and schedules have been revised to include more drugs.
The amendment of 1984 revised Section 54 of the Ordinance and the new Section 54 (a) refers to four situations – manufacture of dangerous drugs, trafficking of any drug referred to in Part 3, import and export and possession of dangerous drugs.
This amendment is significant chiefly for two reasons; while it has enhanced the punishment entailed in the above situations, the term ‘trafficking’ is given a broader definition. It is defined as to ‘sell, give, procure, store, administer, transport, send, deliver or distribute or to offer to do anything mentioned above.’
In 1986, an amendment related to opium was put forward. This does not relate to any other drugs such as heroin, cocaine, cannabis or sativa L, which are the most commonly used drugs in this country. If we take the number of cases prosecuted each year, almost 99% cases pertain to these drugs.
Since all these legal enactments have not looked at certain aspects, particularly in terms of rehabilitation, another amendment is soon to see light, focussing on this issue, which I believe will fill the existing lacuna. Provisions relating to transit and transshipment are also to be included in this amendment.

Q: What can you tell about the disposal of drug-related cases? Is there a heavy backlog?
A:
I have been in charge of narcotic-related cases reported throughout the island, at the Attorney General’s Department for the last five years and I must say that the disposal of cases is very satisfactory by the Department as well as the courts. We hardly have any backlog.
I think the setting up of a special court dedicated exclusively to drug cases in 2006 contributed to the expeditious disposal of cases. All drugs cases within the Colombo District are now directed to the High Court set up in Welikada within the prison premises. Similarly in Negombo, a special High Court is entrusted with hearing of narcotic cases.
Negombo is a very vulnerable area pertaining to the importation of drugs, where we find many Pakistani and Indian nationals who are offenders, apart from locals. These two High Courts have been instrumental in expediting the hearing of narcotic-related cases.

Q: How effective are the penalties quoted for narcotic offences?
A:
Possession of over two grammes of heroin is an offence punishable with death. However, this is commuted to life imprisonment. From a prosecutor’s point of view, I think having more than 90% of convictions is satisfactory. Last year we received over 600 serious cases of heroin and cocaine together and we have indicted over 550.
It is very rarely that you find a case ending up as an acquittal. Also, we find many pleading guilty in narcotic-related offences. Over 20 foreign nationals have pleaded guilty to serious charges in the Negombo and Colombo High Courts within the last three months and received life sentences.

Q: What are the most vulnerable areas in the island as far as importing and trafficking is concerned?
A:
As a nation, we are in a very vulnerable position. Geographically, Sri Lanka can be easily accessed by drug-producing countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan. Locally speaking, the drug problem is most acute in cities, particularly Colombo and the suburbs, and the coastal belt of the island including Negombo, Chilaw, Mannar, Marawila, and in the southern coast – Unawatuna, Hikkaduwa, Beruwala, Kalutara and Moratuwa.

Q: What are the social issues related to narcotics which need to be addressed?
A:
Rehabilitation is of paramount importance. If we look at the detection statistics, we can see the numbers accelerating. The destruction caused to society by these drugs is of a high magnitude, especially heroin. Its destructive effect is very high and the addiction rate is much higher than that of other drugs such as cannabis.
Even if we look at the prison population, drug offenders constitute the highest percentage. The prison population is fortified by these offenders. Rehabilitation needs special emphasis in order to enable the addicts to be introduced to the mainstream of society once again. I also believe that law enforcement authorities should not only target local traffickers but international ‘big time’ traffickers as well who are responsible for bringing heroin into this country.

****

Drug replacement therapy

Drug replacement therapy is a commonly used method in the Western world to rehabilitate Heroin addicts. “Methadone is an effective maintenance therapy intervention for the treatment of heroin dependence as it retains patients in treatment and decreases heroin use better than treatments that do not utilize Opioid replacement therapy” said Dr. Manoj Fernando.
The idea is to use Methadone which has similar qualities but is less addictive. “Normally in the States the clinics start with round 30 mg and then reduce the dose” Dr. Fernando added
“There are two or three centres in Sri Lanka who use this method” he said but he added that Methadone treatment alone is not enough. “Although it’s less addictive than Heroin we must not forget that Methadone is a drug. So the addict has to kick that habit as well”
According to Dr. Fernando in order to achieve the expected results drug replacement therapy should be combined with counseling. “In order to achieve the best results some type of psychological counseling should be provided for their addiction. In the Western world the addicts are required to attend drug addiction programmes. But in Sri Lanka it’s a very expensive therapy because of the scarcity of the drug”
(RK)

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