President Maithripala Sirisena pictured with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte
President Maithripala Sirisena genuinely or otherwise seems to share the rightful sense of urgency to combat the drug menace in this country. If he is genuine, he would be the first national leader who understood the gravity of the problem, and sought decisively to act upon it. Perhaps the only other leader, who grappled the extent of the challenge was Ranjan Wijeratna, who as the de-facto defence minister in 1988-89, liquidated the Colombo underworld (along with the JVP).
Moral justification aside, he served a national purpose. The others overlooked the problem. Some others, however tend to ignore the drug peddlers in their midst, when they served a political purpose. Mahinda Rajapaksa, the ex-president infamously visited the residence of Nimal Lanza after the Police Special Task Force raided his house on a tip off.
President Sirisena has vouched to resume death sentence on drug smugglers. He has also lauded President Rodrigo Duterte of Philippines calling his unusually bloody anti-narcotic campaign as ‘an example to the world’.
President Duterte and earlier Taskin Shinawatra of Thailand were two leaders who realized the urgency of combating the curse of drugs. They also resorted to overly violent means to fight off the organized drug barons and average drug peddlers. Those who live in the laurels of gated communities often view such high handed means with contempt. However, in broken and lawless societies, such strong- handed measures provide - to borrow from Alberto Fujimori, another leader who was not a stranger to use of force- a ‘shock therapy’ to amend its ways.
President Sirisena is ridiculed by the Colombo’s liberal literati for his conviction. However, if a liberal society to survive, as one Conservative Lord in the 19th century British Parliament reminded his liberal peers, murderers should be hanged, rapists locked up and thieves be prosecuted. If the evil in our societies are left out of chains, they would pounce upon the innocent, and cannibalize, literally and figuratively, a good deal of its lawful citizens. Nonetheless, the same realist calculations that provide justification for a State to execute criminals, at times, may also dissuade doing so.
In the same way, threatened resumption of Capital punishment is counter- productive for Sri Lanka. And the president’s remedy seems to be overly simplistic.
Sri Lanka cannot kick its drug habit just by hanging a few drug lords, who are already in prison. Instead, it can complicate, and even delegitimize a well -intentioned effort to combat drugs.
If Sri Lanka is to execute all drug offenders, it would easily join the rank of top five executioners of the world, after China, Iran, Saudi Arabia. Irrespective of the dead, that is a bad advertisement for the living.
There are 1,299 death row prisoners in Sri Lanka, including 48 who are convicted for drug offences. A list of 18 inmates have been processed by the AG’s Department for the initial implementation of the capital punishment. If the retributive cost of capital punishment to be sustained, the country has to keep hanging. How many is too many would then be the question.
Second, there will be economic cost. That includes the GSP Plus tariff concessions by the EU.
Third, drug menace has run so deep in certain social entities that it cannot be resolved through one dimensional retributive method.
The government should come up with a multi-pronged anti -narcotic strategy, which should focus on not just the arrest, but also the guaranteed lengthy prison sentences for selling, and the arrest and the mandatory rehabilitation of addicts.
According to Sri Lanka Police, there were 95,797 drug related arrests in Sri Lanka during the last year. However, proof of the usual antiquated approach to drugs, these statistics lump together all drug relate crimes- both hard drugs such as heroin, Meth and Cocaine and soft, such as Ganja or Marijuana. The latter is legalized in some countries. Effectively, even the most basic statistics available do not represent the full scope of the problem.
Sri Lanka’s real problem is with heroin and to a certain extent, the increasing accessibility of Crystal Meth or ICE.
According to conservative statistics, there are 50,000 heroin users in the country. Majority of whom, had been through courts multiple time.
More worrying phenomenon is that hard drugs are now easily available in the villages. The Down South is an example. When this columnist left Sri Lanka for four years ago, heroin usage was marginal in his ancestral village of Koggala. Today, it is easily available deep in the interior, delivered on call by couriers; users have increased correspondingly.
Sri Lanka is yet to see the full scale of the looming problem. Heroin is never a recreation drug and is highly addictive. Even those local youth, who might be using it sparingly now, are doomed for lifelong addiction.
The extent of addition and its implications would be manifest in a couple of years down the line. By then, the horse has bolted and the authorities will be destined to deal with a horde of brain dead zombies.
Also, supply would not dry out until the demand exists. And a well-spread out retail distribution network exists in Sri Lanka. Protagonists of that network not only do distribute drugs, but also lure the teens, school drop outs and others who are at the experimental age.
Cops in each police division are privy of the retail sellers in their precinct, but they often prefer to overlook their existence. Often heroin dealers and the local cops have an unwritten understanding whereby drug peddlers survive by providing a couple of court cases to the cops. Sri Lankan police is rotten at its roots. That requires a strong political mandate to transmitted from the executive to the bottom, with explicit sanctions against non adherence, for the police to effectively combat drugs.
Drug dealing should be made a non-bailable offence and the penal code should be amended to provide mandatory lengthy custodial sentences to drug dealers. All drug and underworld related offenders should be transferred to a maximum security prison. Rights of the inmates can be restricted as mandated and military police can be entrusted with enforcing law and order within the prisons. Again, these may require amendments to the existing regulations, which can be addressed with a sense of urgency.
The other side of the coin is the rehabilitation. The government should invest on a multi-tracked rehabilitation initiative of drug addicts. Rehabilitation initiatives in Sri Lanka often overlook the bitter certainty: 80 per cent of heroin addicts worldwide relapse.
Therefore, emphasis should be to bring down the relapsing rate. That would require post-rehabilitation assistance, and perhaps , a mandatory probation period, and mandatory reportage to a case officer.
Those who are outraged by Duterte’s bloody crack down on drugs, or Sirisena’s call to introduce death penalty often overlook a far more brutal social and familial collapse caused by drugs. However, the brute force along cannot defeat drug menace because addiction itself is a disease. Fighting it in a humane way is the best guarantee for its long term success.
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