Last week, the government announced plans to convert the former Kelki School in Trashigang into a “specialised school to support students who are struggling with substance use-related issues”. While the intention may be well-meaning, this strategy represents a regressive step that violates the fundamental principles and policies to protect the children in conflict with the law guaranteed by the Constitution, Childcare and Protection Act (CCPA), 2011 and the primary objectives of the Narcotic Drugs, Psychotropic Substances and Substance Abuse (NDPSSA) Act of 2015 itself.

Firstly, the NDPSSA Act 2015 (amended 2018) clearly emphasizes treating substance abuse as a health issue requiring “treatment, rehabilitation and social reintegration” through counselling, life skills education, and providing healthy recreational opportunities. Segregating and isolating young people grappling with substance abuse is counterproductive to the promotion of their well-being and successful social reintegration later.

 Secondly, Section 32 NDPSSA Act mandates the government ensure youth are comprehensively “informed and educated on the dangers of substance abuse” and “provided with preventive support and protection” through the empowering networks of families, educational institutions, local communities, and religious institutions. Removing these vulnerable students from their existing communities and traditional support systems fundamentally defies the law’s intent. Instead, their forced isolation in a segregated facility will only breed further stigma, and marginalization and reduce their chances for effective rehabilitation and social reintegration in future. Forced enrolment raises concerns about coercive detainment over voluntary treatment paths emphasized in Sections 40 and 47-49 of the Act.

 Thirdly, our Constitution explicitly prohibits any form of discrimination “on the grounds of race, sex, language, religion, politics or other status”. Explicitly singling out and segregating a group of students based solely on substance abuse dependency constitutes clear discrimination.

 Fourthly, the plan for a specialized substance abuse school for youth also appears to be in direct conflict with the core principles laid out in the CCPA. An isolated, segregated facility runs counter to upholding youth’s best interests and dignity. It risks violating the privacy rights of the child and their family members and deprives them of crucial family/community supports mandated by Sections 12 and 22. The separate school model also opposes the integrative rehabilitation vision through family, community, mainstream schools, vocational training, and civil society under CCPA. Section 3 of CCPA unambiguously establishes that the “best interest of the child shall be the primary consideration” for all government actions concerning children.

 Fifthly, sections 20-23 uphold crucial principles of decriminalization, protecting child dignity and privacy rights, avoiding unnecessary separation from parents, and restricting the use of force or restraints only as an absolute last resort.  Even the Penal Code recognizes children below 12 cannot be criminally liable, and youth sentencing stresses rehabilitation over punishment. From a socio-economic point of view, by keeping them mainstream schools, we could use existing school resources such as professional counsellors could provide timely interventions. Keeping students integrated allows for leveraging personnel expertise, positive peer influencers, and natural support systems. Mainstream school communities can be invaluable for prosocial engagement and accountability in rehabilitation.

 Therefore, quarantining struggling youth reflects archaic, regressive practices contrary to Bhutan’s evolving values envisioned and nurtured by our great monarchs for centuries. The government should immediately reconsider and reverse such move. Our nation’s children battling substance abuse deserve ethical, effective, and compassionate models of care and empower their recovery as mandated by law if we want to create a GNH State.

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

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

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