Schools in Thimphu have begun a system of random testing for controlled and harmful substances in school by asking parents to sign a consent letter. While the education ministry’s decision is aimed at curbing drug use among students, it has generated debate among teachers and parents.

Many seem to view this threat to incarcerate children as a regressive policy. Some argue that the State does not have the authority to arrest anyone without following due process of law. One went put it with certain vehemence. “Any arrest not authorised by law will be unlawful, procedural arbitrary and unconstitutional. The authority to grant or reject bail only rests with the court, not police. No law enforcement including police has authority to operate at whims and fancies.”

While the debate is inevitable, we must also see it as an opportunity. Healthy discussions lead to meaningful solutions. So, let there be a serious debate on this pertinent issue.

Although we do not have figures, we are being told that drug use among school-goers is growing, especially in bigger urban centres such as Thimphu and Phuentsholing. Well aware that such trends can destroy health and future of young people, the education ministry’s intervention makes sense. The Chief of Police has also said that “extensive” patrolling would be launched to address assault, battery and abuse of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances (NDPS) cases involving students.

What this indicates is that although the problem is yet small it is growing at an alarming rate to necessitate such interventions. The chief of Police, Major General Chimi Dorji said: “At any point if anybody is caught while carrying out a criminal act, [he or she] will be arrested, detained and prosecuted without any opportunities for bail or sureties. At such times the police might also question the teachers on their accountability towards the student.”

Parents largely support the move but disagree with the way it is coming. Some are already asking what would happen to children after they are found to have used controlled substances? What happens to their education, their future? These are important questions.

Treatment and rehabilitation must be seen as equally important options. Society has the responsibility to ensure wholesome development of a child through reformative, social-reintegration and restorative solutions. Otherwise, we would just be criminalising children which could have a profound impact on young lives and their future. Schools must make efforts to reduce or eliminate drug use among students but society must also have meaningful interventions in place.