Drug abuse in Maldives: Stigma trumps treatment

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Officers from Drug Enforcement Department (DED) pictured during a raid | Photo: Maldives Police Service

On Tuesday, 22 June 2021, an adolescent boy’s dead body was found in the Hulhumalé lagoon. He was labelled a drug user and the murder itself is overshadowed by the stigma that comes with any affiliation with drugs.

There is a lack of understanding about drug use, the drug trade and drug-related treatments among the public. The insufficient awareness mixed with the absence of a viable framework and band-aid measures at every crisis has created a chaotic system that is unable to assist the victims of drug abuse and contain illicit trafficking in the island nation.

No policies in place a decade since the ratification of Drugs Act

The first legislature to differentiate drug related crimes and define the drug despondent persons as people who need treatment and rehabilitation was the Drugs Act (Act No. 17/2011) passed in 2011. The Drugs Act determined categories of drug related crimes including the use of drugs, possession of drugs, and dealing in drugs. The law also mandates drug dependence assessments in certain circumstances.

To implement this, the President at the time, Mohamed Nasheed established National Drugs Control Council in January 2012. The National Drug Control Council is a government body that will advise the President on the prevention of illegal drug use and drug trafficking in the Maldives, and administer the establishment of rehabilitation programmes in the country.

These authority figures are to “formulate policies relating to the prevention of drug trafficking and drug use” as per the legislature of Maldives. A decade after the establishment of this council, there are no policies in place to guide the National Drug Agency (NDA) which is the authority that implements the policies related to this Act upon their determination by the President on the advice of the National Drug Council.

Drug use is the third most common factor that leads to extremism in Maldives.


Lack of Trained Personnel for Rehabilitation & Comprehensive Studies

“The approach and treatments are different for special populations. Like for children, women and older adults,” says Ali Adyb, ICAP, ICAP-RS, Internationally Certified Addiction Professional, Recovery Coach & Global Drug. While Maldives lacks the personnel to address women’s drug issues, there is no one available in the entire country for juveniles.

Adyb notes the absence of comprehensive studies of underlying issues that lead minors to drugs. He says that scientifically speaking there are protective factors and risk factors in families, societies and individuals. Those with higher risk factors are more likely to turn to substance abuse. However, there are no studies done in the Maldives on the root causes.

We are all basing on assumptions and that is why we are going nowhere.

When it comes to drug rehabilitation therapies, different kinds of addictions and population segments require unique care. While adolescents who start drug use younger need more comprehensive care and repeated cycles of treatments as opposed to adults, there is no qualified professional in the entire country to treat minors.

There are many who are not equipped or trained to deal with substance abuse who portray themselves as recovery coaches who cause more damage to the situation. For instance, being a person who previously suffered from drug use disorders can provide help to someone who is going through addiction, but is not equipped for professional help.

Addiction rehabilitation requires not only treatment from the addiction, but the mental, socio-cultural and other factors that facilitate the addiction. In the Maldives, it is a one for all treatment that portrays a mirage of wasted taxpayer money on people suffering from drug use disorders who return to drugs as soon as they are released from rehab. The lack of adequate resources and the unchanged environment is unseen but the failed drug users are the focal point. This repeated cycle adds to the generational stigma against drug users in the country.

We are not concerned with helping all the young people who start using.

Treatment without prevention is not sustainable

The most important factor is prevention when it comes to drug use. Adyb observes that the system and society is not concerned with or equipped for prevention. There is a lack of awareness for parents who are not familiar with the risk factors, behaviours and are not able to communicate with their children.

Whenever parents have a gut feeling act on it. Talk to the child. Tell them that we noticed you are behaving differently and we are here to help. We love you. How can we help?

This video is part of the ‘Listen First’ programme by UNODC focuses on the child, putting them first, regardless of the adult’s position in society and urges the adults to engage with the children and actively listen.

Actively listening to children, showing care and patience is useful in preventing deviant behaviours and substance abuse. Being more focused on stigmatizing people suffering from drug use disorders is unhelpful to prevention, and treatment without prevention is not sustainable.

Evidence based prevention if implemented in schools, decrease violent behaviour by 30 percent, increases school performance by 20 percent, reduces substance use by 30 percent. Starting research based prevention programs as young as preschool can lead to long term effects, observed even fifteen years later.

The fallout from Covid-19

The children who are in stages of their development where their brains are developing, their social skills and relationship dynamics are shifting being locked inside will create a gap in their developmental process. They are facing a lot of challenges at a time when they must form friendships and learn to socialize. Without intervention being released into the world at this state, post-pandemic, there is a large area for addictions and other deviant behaviours to take hold.

“A likely increase in suicides, overdose deaths and substance use disorders have been shown in models made from data collected by researchers after terrorist attacks, economic downturns and natural disaster,” writes Adyb.

UNICEF has assisted in the development of a treatment program for the rehabilitation and reintegration for children and adolescents who used drugs in the Maldives, which remains unimplemented. It is important to address drug related issues and establish drug prevention and treatment programs because,

No child says I am going to grow up and become a drug addict.

Thank you to Ali Adyb, ICAP, ICAP-RS, Internationally Certified Addiction Professional, Recovery Coach & Global Drug demand reduction master Trainer for all the support and the enlightening interview.