Gov’t anti-drug efforts get failing grade for criminalising users, ignoring ‘big fish’

-at public consultation on new strategy

Stakeholders yesterday drubbed government’s past efforts to combat the drug trade, saying there has been a misdirected emphasis on penalising users instead of  rehabilitating them and a failure to go after the “big fish” responsible for the supply.

Only a handful of persons gathered at the Umana Yana yesterday after the government advertised for a public discourse on the in-the-works National Drug Strategy Master Plan 2013 to 2017 and many of them were filled with doubt. And with the absence of officials that are involved in the formulation of the plan, anger was also a common sentiment among the members of the public who turned up.

Almost in a chorus, those present said that the PPP/C administration has failed to deliver the strategies promised in earlier plans and voiced their doubts about the new plan. They also charged that the meeting was a waste of time, since the Home Affairs Minister Clement Rohee and other high-ranking officials did not show up to have talks with them.

“Quite frankly, I don’t have a lot of hope because this place is specialized in making documents. Over the last twenty years we have spent trying to implement the Domestic Violence Act,” said a representative of Red Thread, a non-governmental organization for women, Karen de Souza.

“We do not have existing in this country the civil or the political will to deal with these social issues and if we can’t get the population of this country to find the energy or the time to put pressure where pressure is needed, then nothing would be addressed. Therefore, we are wasting our time here and all we are having is a good gaff,” a frustrated de Souza heckled when a representative from the Home Affairs Ministry tried to defend the plan.

She noted that consultations for the plan were behind since the next national budget was already being prepared. “If we don’t have money for the plan, then all we have is a document,” she argued, while expressing further disapproval that there wasn’t a single representative from the Education Ministry present at the consultation.

de Souza said that the drug issue should be tackled at an elementary level. “We should start in schools… we should educate the children,” she said, while noting that children are drinking in schools and are exposed to different types of drugs.

Schools, she added, are not disconnected from the drugs flowing through the streets. She also derided the consultation for being a “poor representation” of what they had initially gathered to discuss.

“We need to go beyond the common approach and get more education in the education system,” she charged. de Souza said that a better judicial system is not the cure for drugs, “but rehabilitation centres are.”

One man noted that the absence of rehabilitations centres is the reason for the previous plan’s failure. He argued that dependence on the judicial system has crammed persons into the prisons, where they are being supported by taxpayers’ dollars. “Taxpayers mind these people in prisons… this is atrocious because we could be pouring that same money into the Salvation Army and rehabilitation centres,” he said.

“Sending them to prison is a waste of time. We put them in prison for three years for smoking a joint and then they graduate into criminals. That is why the last plan failed,” he charged, while adding that there wasn’t a “Master Plan in the first place.”

‘We need to get serious’

Clarence Young, of the Phoenix Recovery Project, said that Guyana is different from the developed countries and therefore it should not anchor its law enforcement and judicial systems by their standards. “We are different from the first world countries. We have to stop playing the fool and losing lives every day,” he said, while saying the previous Drug Master Plan was a failure.  “We need to get serious. You need not to talk the talk but walk the walk.”

“I have wasted my morning! Come on, how serious are we, because where are the people that should be here…those that are tasked with making the strategy?” he complained, while pointing out that most of the stakeholders did not show up to the meeting.

“How much of that Master Plan was completed? For us, whose interest seem to be in drug demand reduction, we could say very little,” he added, while questioning whether the Home Affairs Ministry saw success in its project. He also noted that it was a challenge to get copies of the last plan, making it harder to revise it and judge how much of the strategy was implemented. “We have nothing. Each region in Guyana has its own drug challenges,” he said, while suggesting that people should be trained to meet the demand at regional and community levels.

The draft Inception Report says that the Government of Guyana is in the process of formulating a new National Drug Strategy Master Plan (NDSMP) for 2013- 2017, following the expiration of the 2005 -2009 plan.

As of September 2010, 33 of the previous plan’s 36 programmes had been implemented; 18 had been completed while 15 were ongoing and yet to be completed. Three had not started, the report noted. Leader of the Opposition David Granger has criticised the government for being sloppy in funding the project and for not accomplishing their strategies. Granger’s criticisms have been dismissed by Minister Rohee, who said that the government was investing money to clamp down on drug issues.

“Our country is currently working assiduously to draft a new Drug Strategy Master Plan that would be used to guide our current and future anti-narcotics activities,” he had said.

In 2009 the US State Department had also commented on the government’s National Drug Strategy Master Plan, stating that the government had achieved few of the plan’s goals. The State Department had opined that the minimal teamwork among the law enforcement bodies and weak border patrols inadvertently permitted drug traffickers to bring drugs into the country.


‘The Big Fish’

“Greater communication among stakeholders and the government would create a workable plan which could be implemented,” one man stated at the consultation, while arguing that the government alone should not shoulder the blame for the previous failed plans. He insisted that civilians should also be interested in the drug situation.

“Even though we are sincere that we want this to happen, it is not working so we have to start getting up and get and do something meaningful. We have to be comprehensive in what we are doing or else all we will be doing is scratching the surface,” he said.

Meanwhile, another man expressed grave disapproval of government presenting strategies with no implementation. He seethed that most plans would start and drop without any good being done to society. “There is little to no progress. It start… it end and then somebody put a group of people to talk and we have another consultation again…but what happens after today? We would like to see changes. We should bring the youths… the judicial system into these meetings…let’s hear what they have to say…because I would be very disturbed if there is another abrupt ending,” he added.

A representative of the Home Affairs Ministry defended the government, indicating that it was important to have a national framework. “It is not all in vain. Some things are happening and some things are going to happen. And once you realise that it’s a national plan that we have to present to an international level then you will understand,” the representative said. “There are national problems but there is always a need for a strong integrated strategy. The way I see it is that it’s all coming together and it will all converge. I don’t share your pessimism. We have a basis from which to operate,” the official added.

Stakeholders suggested that drug users be “sentenced” to community work instead of imprisoning them. They argued that the problem is not with the users but with the sellers. “For us to tackle the drug problem we have to take it from the root. We gotta go after the big fish because the children—the boys on the streets—are only the users that keeping the big fishes alive,” one stakeholder said.

They also asked for recreational places to be constructed to keep the youths occupied and away from drugs and lobbied for the police to be more vigilant in arresting suppliers. “If you don’t have a supplier you wouldn’t have a user.”

“If you come to see my community in Sophia you would vomit…it’s terrible and what is being done? What are we doing?” one woman asked. “It appears that they are doing something when they lock up a hundred people for drug possession… it makes nice headlines but that’s not enough.”

Another woman argued that the previous plan was a failure because she “didn’t even know anything about it,” and which, she says, further highlights the effort that the government officials placed in educating the population about drugs.

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