In recent weeks, Bhutanese media spotlighted arrests of suspected traffickers, praising law enforcement’s swift action. However, neither media nor courts questioned the state’s failure to provide demand reduction measures mandated by the Narcotic Drugs, Psychotropic Substances and Substance Abuse Act. This includes establishing adequate rehabilitation and treatment institutions and institutionalising social reintegration and after-care services as legally required.

During the 115th National Day Address, His Majesty expressed deep concerns about substance abuse threatening Bhutanese society, particularly youth. Stressing the need for urgent, collective action, His Majesty set out a vision to compassionately tackle this menace through treatment, prevention, and enforcement. However, current enforcement practices prioritise only incarceration and deterrence overlooking demand reduction measures in dealing with the issue.

In fact, NDPSSA Act contains numerous progressive provisions affirming rehabilitation as a key drug control strategy. Sections 33 and 34 mandates the state to institute quality treatment and rehabilitation centres for drug dependence. Section 35 obligates the Authority to ensure availability of counseling, detoxification, after-care and social reintegration services, spanning a continuum of evidence-based care. Section 36 allows even private and NGOs to establish licensed rehabilitation initiatives, promoting diversity in care options. Overall, these provisions embody a clear commitment to not merely punish but meaningfully rehabilitate drug dependence and socially reintegrate them back into society. However, today, apart from limited drop-in counseling and psychiatric beds, Bhutan lacks adequate institutionalised rehabilitation and reintegration programmes to actualise the law’s intent across the country including Thimphu.

His Majesty stressed that losing even one youth to drugs threatens Bhutan’s aspirations. Yet, without comprehensive support, dependence often becomes a chronic relapsing condition, risking lives. An unbalanced emphasis on criminalisation and more so naming and shaming over social reintegration infringes on rights to privacy of not just accused but also their family members and the presumption of innocence guaranteed by the Constitution.  Such measures are tried by many other systems and found it ineffective. The increasing number despite posting on social media indicates that it is not working in our country too. Who will remedy any social consequences for their family due to such posting because there is no law authorising such penalty? Law enforcement agencies must operate within the legal framework and rule of law irrespective of its intention as any state arbitrariness is non-democratic.

True fidelity to His Majesty’s vision necessitates matching enforcement efforts with equitable access to treatment and social reintegration. Incarceration should be the last resort, in a reformative and restorative criminal justice approach. Demand reduction through evidence-based care must be prioritised alongside supply reduction. The recent reports already revealed that drug dependent individuals suffer significant discrimination meaning there is lack of awareness on such issues.

The law mandates the authorities to “monitor the enforcement of the provisions under this Act and periodically conduct an impact assessment of the plans and programmes implemented to prevent and control abuse of controlled drugs and substances.” The NDSSA Rules and Regulations are still unknown to public and impact assessments on implementation of law remains to be seen.

Bhutan cannot incarcerate or shame its way out of a complex health challenge. To create a drug-free society through compassion, His Majesty’s vision calls for holistic law implementation. More robust legislative oversight is needed to evaluate implementation, fix accountability, wherever agencies fail to function within the legal frameworks authorised by parliament and ensure that demand reduction measures are implemented parallel to enforcement. 

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.