By Patrick De Silva
A recent discussion on combating substance abuse and its prevalence raised several interesting issues – matters that must require public interest, discussion and debate to generate sensible action.
The discussion centred around the alarming rise of dangerous narcotics that have pervaded every aspect of life and society. Let me attempt to briefly summarize the length and breadth of the problem. In those underprivileged quarters of families living in Colombo, Gampaha, Negombo, Galle, Hikkaduwa, Kandy and its suburbs, youth from 16 years upwards are languishing at home away from school or work – unable to lift their bodies or minds from their dazed stupor induced by drugs.
In some homes with three sons, their mother lamented the fate that befell her once healthy children, a fate she blames on the ills of society and a breakdown in law and order. Husbands and once healthy sons in some instances stress mothers and wives to earn a living to fund their need for drugs. In Sri Lankan prisons, a quick drag of powder sells for as low as Rs.100 a shot and there is no shortage of heroin, cocaine, stamps, ganja and more even within those high walls. Tourists visiting many parts of the island complain of touts offering all forms of drugs and substances that some of them didn’t anticipate to find so freely and cheap in this ‘paradise isle’ steeped in culture, history and heritage – where morality forms the foundation for all social and political practice.
Therein was my bone of contention. We live surrounded by pomposity of great acts by our nation’s leaders and lawmakers of winning a war against intoxication and addiction but all we have seemed to really do is drive our youth deeper into the mire.
When I asked the august gathering of minds as to what real action we have taken to stem this rot, I was pointed to the National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol (NATA), its introduction of graphic health warnings on cigarette packs and high taxes on legal tobacco and alcohol products.
Evidently, in my opinion, we are flogging a dead horse and fighting shy of addressing the real issue of dangerous drugs and narcotics, which has reached fever pitch in recent times. We must praise the efforts of those virtuous officers who have reeled in and apprehended large stocks of drugs and traffickers but the real problem persists with the support of politicians and some factions of law enforcement. After all, copious amounts of drugs cannot be transported, purchased or traded within prison walls without the support of its machinery. Prisons are meant to reforms persons but instead we turn them into monsters.
Our discussion also turned on some of the draft amendments to the NATA Act, which includes proposals to ban the sale of tobacco and alcohol around places frequented by persons under 21, public place smoking ban including private hotels and restaurants, display restrictions at point of sale for alcohol and tobacco products, introduction of seasons to be free of tobacco and alcohol and more. All the above is inspiring but its practicality and applicability was questioned by many of us, also with reference to the incidents alluded above.
Time to be real with solutions
As a nation and as leaders, we need to graduate from applying policy to camouflage or conceal our embarrassment with real problems. High price and restrictions have clearly and undeniably driven consumers underground towards toxic products that have laid waste to the future potential and promise of our people and land. Most of us held the opinion that we must – at least at this very late stage – start focusing our campaign against the very real problem of dangerous and illicit drugs.
Furthermore, we must learn to be practical. There are next to no areas that are not frequented by persons under 21 years and the proposed 500-metre radius rule will mean that no shops can sell tobacco products – but this will not stop the illegal trade. Public place ban and restrictions on hotels and even consumption-free seasons looked good on paper and consistent with our lofty morale values but unrealistic in a society teaming with alcohol addiction, drugs and other vices.
The question of tourism – a primary source of foreign income – and its impact therein must also be given due consideration. We live in the 21st century and a global village and we must learn to be practical and real with our decisions that impact our future.
The most alarming draft proposal in my view and that of another was one to grant executive police powers to public health inspectors and medical officers of health to arrest and detain persons for deemed tobacco and alcohol offences. This brought to light several cases where mere consumers of ganja, for instance, have been charged with sales and trafficking of drugs – a much serious offence leading to long and arduous litigation and sentences.
Some of these cases have been filed by such authorities based on their personal disputes and influence of interested parties. Whilst I would wish to state that not all quarters of authorities serve on the wrong side of the stick, we are leaving too much room for error, misjudgement and mismanagement with such draconian offers.
Officials have already been reported implementing no sales campaigns for legal tobacco and alcohol products in various parts of the country for no foreseeable legitimate reasons and we do not need to arm them further unnecessarily.
It is time that we become real with solutions for our problems. It is time to steer this country in the right direction devoid of personal political illusions and create a strong, engaged and informed public. Fuelled by corruption across the board, the menace of dangerous drugs and narcotics has reached unprecedented levels in Sri Lanka and it’s corrupting every aspect of society – it is becoming incurable, which is why I am firmly of the opinion that the public must be informed and made aware and engaged in the discussion and action to combat this menace.
No county in the world and Sri Lanka will never be devoid of any form of substance abuse. They are products and manifestations of history – and as any historian would correctly point out, they have been part of Sri Lankan history. We must instead focus on controlling and regulating consumption to minimize harm on society and health. We must address the real issues. Let’s do it for a better Sri Lanka.
(Patrick De Silva is an attorney-at-law and serves as a regulatory affairs consultant to leading agronomic institutions in Sri Lanka and Australia with over three decades of experience. He can be reached at email@example.com)