In what could be a cause of concern, majority of the people convicted for offences related to controlled substances are in the most productive age group.
About 90 percent of the convicts are between 19 and 35 years with an average age of 28 years. This is according to a study conducted by the deputy chief programme officer with Bhutan Narcotics Control Authority’s (BNCA) Demand Reduction Division, Dorji Tshering, last year.
“This is very sad,” he said.
The study, which is yet to be published included only those inmates who have been convicted for drugs related offences as per the Narcotic Drugs Psychotropic Substances and Substance Abuse (NDPSSA) Act of Bhutan (2005) (2015) and 2018 (Amendment Act).
According to Royal Bhutan Police records, one-fourth of the prisoners serving sentences across the country are for drug-related cases. Of the 4,847 people arrested for drug-related offences from 2012 to June 2018, about 53.29 percent cases were sent to the court.
A total of 381 convicts were serving their sentence during the time of the study, from September to November 2018. Of this, 219 convicts (57 percent) of the target population were selected for the study based on inclusion criteria. About 6.4 percent were female.
Spasmoproxyvon (SP) is the most abused and trafficked controlled substance. About 70 percent of the inmates were sentenced for illicit trafficking and offences related to SP.
Of this, about nine percent were convicted for possessing less than 20 capsules of SP. About 37 percent were sentenced for possessing 21 to 100, 27 percent for possessing 100 to 500 capsules and nine percent for 500 to 1,000 SP capsules.
While about 12 percent were convicted for possessing 1,000 and more SP capsules, about five percent were convicted for aiding and abetting convicts who were sentenced for offences related to SP.
Convicts charged for illicit trafficking of cannabis and Nitrosun 10 (N10) tablets followed with 25 and 20 percent respectively. Less than two percent were charged for illicit trafficking and offences related to corex (codeine-based cough syrup) and brown sugar.
The study, ‘A socio-demographic profile of the drug convicts and their level of substance use disorder prior to arrest or imprisonment,’ found that drug offenders serving prison term were deprived of their substance use disorder (SUD) treatment needs.
Studies have shown that most people struggling with drug abuse and addiction aren’t receiving treatment. “One major reason for this trend could be because of the stigma associated with drug addiction,” Dorji Tshering said. “There is a need for policy change to look at drug use disorder as a health problem.”
Apart from few life skills training, and day counselling programme initiated by BNCA at Thimphu District Prison a few years ago, he said that nothing has been done to address the needs of the convicts.
“Through this study, we have a basis to kick start,” he said.
Risks after prison life
A quantitative approach using descriptive statistics was conducted in six prisons in the country. Dorji Tshering said that a significant number of drug convicts were likely to be dependent on controlled substances prior to their arrest and were at high risk of developing severe problems related to health, social, financial, legal and relationship problems as a result of their drug use.
The survey found that the majority of the prisoners were at high risk of addiction and some of them are already into the addition at the time of the arrest. Despite this, he said most of them have not availed any professional treatment services for their substance use disorders when they were outside.
Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering, during the launch of a nationwide drug prevention awareness campaign in Thimphu earlier this month, said that everyone is treated the same once they are behind bars, whether he is an addict or a murderer. “From a point, we appreciate the law because it is same for everyone.”
However, as a doctor, Lyonchhen said that he cannot group them together. “These are people with mental illness. They should be going to rehabilitation and treatment centres, not locked behind the bars.”
Lyonchhen said that going by the law, they may be sentenced but they should be getting rehabilitation and treatment. “But, this is not happening.”
About 84 percent of the inmates responded that they never received any treatment or rehabilitation before they were convicted.
Help for offenders
The study recommends exploring possibility of establishing drug treatment and rehabilitation centre for drug offenders as an alternative to imprisonment. Studies have shown that there is a dynamic relationship between drug use disorders and offending.
According to a publication by UNODC and WHO in March last year, many people with drug use disorders come into contact with the criminal justice system and many people in the criminal justice system have a history of drug use and drug use disorders.
Because of the compulsive substance seeking nature of addiction, it states that people with SUDs are most likely to be involved in different types of offences such as illegal possession, purchase or sale of substances and other criminal acts.
Dorji Tshering said that studies suggest that if treatment opportunities were provided, it might help reduce future drug use and criminal offence. “Without treatment, they are most likely to use drugs again and continue involving in drug-related offences.”
The Office of the Attorney General’s 2017 annual report states that stringent provisions of the law seem to have less or no deterrence effect on curtailing the abuse of drugs or the number of drug peddlers.
According to the study, 33 percent of the convicts across the country are repeat offenders. Of this, about 24 percent has already served a prison term and five percent served two prison terms and currently serving the third sentence. About two percent have served more than three prison terms prior to their current sentence.
There is a need to look into the possibility of decriminalizing drug abuse and revisiting the drug laws, the study states.
Psychiatrist Dr Chencho Dorji said that with strict laws, nothing much can be done unless the laws are amended.
“I don’t think we can change the laws after every few years. In the meantime, a lot of people are languishing in jail,” Dr Chencho Dorji said. “They are only going to be more hardened and frustrated and when they come out what deterrence is there for them not to do any crime because going back is a familiar trait for them? I think we are actually looking for trouble”
He said that as societies, as leaders, and as providers, everybody should be thinking seriously, as there is no other way. “Our drugs problem is not a major one, it’s about 3,000 to 4,000 people and it is doable. We have the capacity, we just have to apply our heart and mind to do things and we can achieve it.”
In terms of education, the study found that about 73 percent of the convicts had not studied beyond class XII and likely dropped out of school due to the impact of early initiation of substance use.
Majority of the convicts cited peer influence as the main reason for initiating substance abuse. About 78 percent said they initiated substance abuse because of peer influence while four percent tried out of curiosity.
Dorji Tshering said that this could be attributed to lack of parental care and support, easy availability and accessibility to substances. “Drug use is a preventable behaviour and people with drug use disorders can be effectively treated.”
To help prevent young people from developing substance use disorder, he said the system of screening, brief intervention and referral of students with substance use disorder could be instituted.
A need to train teachers and principals on evidence-based prevention interventions and providing specialized course on SUD counselling to all school counsellors were felt.
In contrast to police report which states that the majority of the total arrest were unemployed, Dorji Tshering said that the study found that the majority were employed and lived in Thimphu at the time of the arrest.
About 54 percent of them responded that they were employed while 12 percent said they were doing a part-time job when they were arrested.
According to the study, students and entrepreneurs constitute 20 percent each while drivers constitute about 18 percent of the inmates. Taxi drivers and farmers followed with about nine percent each.
Dr Chencho Dorji, said that more than 50 percent of inmates were charged for a felony of third-degree which is five to nine years prison term. Most of them are caught in possession of 100 to 500 capsules or tablets of the controlled substance.
As per the NDPSSA Act, people caught carrying more than 10 tablets or capsules is an offence of felony.
Dr Chencho Dorji said that a drug addict in Thimphu would take between eight to 30 capsules of SP+ in a day if they get it. “If they develop tolerance, it is not toxic at all. So, 30 capsules is one man’s dose for a day. If they have 100 capsules, he or she won’t be selling the substance because they need it themselves.”
Moreover, he said that it is difficult to get the controlled substance in Thimphu and a file of SP+ capsules which has eight capsules cost Nu 400 and it is quite expensive.