Having stringent laws is not enough to deter drug abuse and illicit trafficking.

According to police records, the country saw an increase of more than 76 percent in the number of cases related to drugs in the past two years.

At the launch of a nationwide drug prevention awareness campaign in Thimphu yesterday, psychiatrist at the national referral hospital, Dr Chencho Dorji, said that existing services for drugs and alcohol dependent people in the country are inadequate and fragmented.

He said that while embarking on an ambitious campaign, there is a need to reflect on the situation and see how services could be delivered. “It is not enough to talk about the services and create awareness,” he said. “If we can’t give services then awareness may not necessarily turn into possible outcomes.”

In some cases, even if there were services available, people don’t avail them.

That measures in place to address the issue, he said, are punitive and not reformative. “History is teaching us that not just in Bhutan but all over the world, punitive measures do not really work in this area.”

What it does is allowing more corruption and more smuggling of controlled substances into the country.

Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering acknowledged that the existing rules are more punitive than reformative. “We really want to come heavy handed on the culprits that are proven guilty but we tend to forget the events that led the person to get to that.”

Lyonchhen said addiction is a disease and it should be treated in a wholesome manner.

“If our former health planners had thought this through and included addiction as a disease, probably we should by now have an addiction control programme under the health ministry and be at a different place,” he said.

Addiction, he said, deserves attention. “We need not do much on the rule book. Section 31 to 40 of the Narcotic Drugs, Psychotropic Substances and Substance Abuse Act of Bhutan clearly states what the state should be doing but in reality, that is not happening.”

Lyonchhen assured that whatever the rules prescribe would be practiced. “Let’s walk the talk.”

The government, he said, has met most non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and that it would study the duplication of the works between the NGOs and government agencies. “In the next five years, NGOs should be ready to come up with action plans. From the policy side, you will get all the support you deserve.”

Chithuen Phendhey Association (CPA) in partnership with Helvatas Bhutan is organising the nationwide campaign. Nine dzongkhags would be covered during the yearlong project.

CPA’s executive director, Tshewang Tenzin said the event is a part of the association’s ongoing initiative to empower people to understand the causes of drugs and alcohol addiction and prevent people from their first onset use of drug or alcohol.

It has become a national concern because of its costs on people’s lives and the economic burden on the country. “What is more concerning is the fact that our children are at the forefront of this problem.”

Drug addiction, he said, is not merely a problem arising out of easy accessibility and availability but has a great deal to do with the social conditions which create the demand for it. “The vulnerability of a modern society plays a major role in promoting susceptibility towards addiction.”

An integral part of the programme will be taking prevention education and awareness to all sections of the society, particularly youth, and the important role that parents play.

Three evidence-based prevention intervention components are strategised to achieve the project’s objectives to reduce and prevent drug and alcohol-related problems.

CPA’s programme officer, Dawa Penjor said that in the youth-based drug prevention awareness and education, the focus would be school youth where awareness sessions would be given to enable them with life skills and knowledge on risk, ill effects and consequences of drug use and abuse.

The community-based intervention programme is intended to increase awareness and education of the community and engage communities in prevention activities.

The third is the workplace strategy where working parents would be reached to provide basic drug prevention education and positive parenting programme.

The campaign is expected to reach out to 18,000 youth and adolescents in schools in Paro, Chukha, Samtse, Tsirang, Dagana, Zhemgang, Mongar, Lhuentse, and Trashiyangtse.

About 3,000 youth will be trained to form peer-based support groups in respective schools while 5,000 individuals are expected to attend the workplace programme.

The European Union is funding the project.

Dechen Tshomo