A rehab unit without one lacks the necessary first step to a complete cure 

Abuse: With the health ministry diverting the budget for the planned detoxification centre to build the mother and child hospital, Bhutan could already be losing its fight against drug and alcohol abuse.

This development has come at a time when the country has just renewed its efforts to address this growing problem of substance abuse that has, since 2001, sent almost 5,000 people behind bars.

Calling it the biggest issue confronting the country today, the president of Youth Development Fund (YDF), Her Majesty the Queen Mother Tshering Pem Wangchuck, announced 2015 as the beginning of an aggressive campaign towards addressing drug and alcohol addiction.

“We’ve been working on this drug issue until now, but somehow our formula wasn’t right, because more youth are getting into drugs and alcohol, while adults are addicted to gambling,” the Queen Mother said. “Every time someone dies of an overdose, we’re failing in what we are doing; this campaign will be a tribute to the Fourth Druk Gyalpo, because he has always believed that the future of the country is the youth.”

The Queen Mother met with key officials from health, police and the narcotics agency on Saturday in Thimphu to get all agencies to work together in drug and alcohol abuse prevention, education, treatment and rehabilitation.

Psychiatrist at the referral hospital, Dr DK Nirola, said the existing 10-bed ward in the hospital is not adequate. “We don’t have a good detoxification centre and we don’t keep drugs and alcohol dependents separately,” he said. “Right now, our detox unit is together with the psychiatric unit, which is not healthy.”

However, to help the thousands, who are living with addiction today, all agreed that a detoxification centre is needed, as it was the first stage of a rehab program, because detoxification will help clients treat their withdrawals and make them medically sober for rehab.

Chief of police, brigadier Kipchu Namgyel said without a detox centre, rehabilitation would be challenging. Highlighting the issue of substance abuse and the increasing number of people, who would need help, he said, in 2014 alone, police arrested 950 people in connection with drugs, of which 58 percent were youth.

There are 284 drug traffickers serving their sentences today, while 382 others are abusers.  Police has so far seized 110,000 proxyvon capsules, 72kg of marijuana and over two kilograms of hashish. “We’re going to intensify much more into this crackdown, because we’ve found that people are now making deals worth thousands, and drugs are given as birthday gifts,” he said.

YDF officials said they planned the rehabilitation centre at Tshaluna, after they learnt that the health ministry was coming up with a detox centre near Gidakom hospital, about 20 minutes drive away.

“Which is why the upcoming rehab centre in Tshaluna has no major detox facility,” YDF officials said, adding that they were also informed that, except for government agencies, no other agencies, such as NGOs, could set up a detox facility.

Health minister Tandin Wangchuk said he would discuss with health officials again on the need for a detox facility along with the issue of legality, and also requested YDF to see the possibilities of including a detox facility in the upcoming rehab in Tshaluna.

“The need for a mother and child hospital was felt more, because mother and child patients make up about 30 percent of the occupancy in the referral hospital,” lyonpo said. “We’ll work together in sourcing funds and support for the detoxification centre.”

Mental health programme officials said the ministry had planned the detoxification centre in the 10th Plan, and also identified space near the Gidakom hospital.  They had initially proposed a budget of Nu 150M, and had already spent about Nu 2M on the architectural drawings.  Later the budget reduced to Nu 100M and, in the 11th Plan, the budget got diverted to the mother and child hospital, which will be constructed near the referral hospital in Thimphu.

That only clinical officials should run detox centres is a requirement of the Narcotic Drugs, Psychotropic Substances and Substance Abuse Act, health officials said, and which the Bhutan Medical Council implements.

Bhutan Narcotic Control Agency (BNCA) director general, Phuntsho Wangdi, said that, as per the act, detoxification was a mandate of the health and that was why, the agency had help train about 60 doctors to date, who have opened detox centres in almost all hospitals across the country.

He said, by next month, BNCA would have opened four addiction treatment centres in the country.  Mongar would have an alcohol addiction treatment centre, Thimphu and Phuentsholing will each have a drug and alcohol addiction treatment centre, while a drug addiction treatment centre would be opened in Gelephu.

“We’re expecting this to reduce relapse cases by half,” Phuntsho Wangdi said. “But we should also address the causes, not just the symptoms.”

JDWNRH’s president Lhab Dorji said the issue of substance abuse has almost become synonymous with the youth today. “Today, people don’t feel safe to stay out after 9:30pm; they say that it’s the time for youth to come out,” he said.

The Saturday meeting was also a follow up to the Queen Mother’s recent visit to the Princess Mother National Institute of Drug Abuse Treatment (PMNIDAT) in Bangkok, where discussions on areas of possible collaborations were held.

YDF officials shared that the institute had agreed to help support detoxification program in Bhutan, by training health workers and doctors, and build capacity in counselling, psychiatry nursing, social works and management of treatment centres.

Her Majesty the Queen Mother said the issue of substance abuse is a priority for the country and, whether the society acknowledges the issue or not, the youth need to be given a chance.

“This is a chance for the youth, one that we mustn’t let go,” the Queen Mother said. “It’s the people who make the country.”

By Sonam Pelden