Stop them before they start
- Authorities must focus on easily accessible ‘gateway’ drugs such as alcohol and tobacco
- international day against drug abuse and illicit trafficking
Jun 26, 2017-The theme for International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking 2017 is “Listen First - Listening to children and youth is the first step to help them grow healthy and safe.” It is important that we listen to our children and youth so we know how to respond correctly. But have we been listening to them? Apparently not, judging from what’s been happening. The drug response agenda in Nepal is driven by global donors. The focus has always been on what policymakers like to call ‘hard drug users’. The national drug strategy, national level research initiatives like the Integrated Bio-Behavioural Survey (IBBS) and the prevalence study of hard drug users and HIV prevention strategies all focus on only hard drug users. The agenda does not include preventing drug use. The slogan of ‘listening’ is irrelevant to big donors whose work is mostly reactive in nature. Prevention of drug use among children is not an investment case for them.
How big is the problem we are talking about? In 2012, there were 91,534 drug users in Nepal, almost double the 2006 figure of 46,309, according to a Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) study. This is extremely alarming and demands a response on a war footing. The IBBS shows that Nepal has made significant strides in lowering HIV prevalence, from 75 per cent to 6 per cent in Kathmandu alone. But the drug using population has been growing fast. Doesn’t this call for the government and donors to shift their focus from HIV to preventing drug use?
One doesn’t become a hard drug user overnight. If Nepal seriously wants to halt such an explosive growth rate, we have to give thought to preventing children and youth from entering this vicious cycle. The onus is on the government and child focused organisations, because big donors are not interested. The government has launched some initiatives, but they are too small, few and far between and not strategic enough to produce a greater impact.
An equally worrying fact is that whatever limited prevention initiatives have been made are extremely ill informed, clearly showing that we are not ‘listening’ to children and their challenges. For example, the government portal related to drugs and hosted by the Ministry of Home Affairs, which is a wonderful initiative but not known to many, has information explaining the dangers of using ‘hard drugs’ such as ecstasy, cocaine and amphetamines! How relevant is it when you are talking about drugs which have extremely limited use and access in Nepal? The same with information in school course books where the stress is, once again, on hard or injecting drugs.
Aren’t we missing the elephant in the room? The concerned authorities must realise that they have to focus on ‘gateway’ drugs such as alcohol, cannabis and tobacco, which are easily accessible in Nepal, and which studies have shown are the first line of drugs that children (or hard drug users for that matter) start with. Once again, no one becomes a hard drug user overnight. There is a gradual step and initiation involved. This is the missing puzzle in Nepal’s drug response, but nobody cares about responding to alcohol, tobacco and cannabis use. The concerned agencies need to know how our children start using drugs. We need to listen.
The government should know that prevention response needs to be sensible, strategic and informed by evidence. The comfort of using available information targeted at Western audiences and hard drug information fed by donors will not translate into preventing children from using gateway drugs. Recently, there was an article on a reputed online news portal which quoted a leading government official from the Drug Control Programme as saying that in all places he found that teachers were the ones teaching children to drink and smoke! If they were his exact words, this is a profound statement indeed on how policymakers understand the situation, and how they are listening and setting a reference on where the problem lies.
This is a war that the government and civil society have completely lost or have become blatantly nonchalant about when it comes to combating gateway drugs such as alcohol. The alcohol industry is quite aggressive, spends millions of rupees on promotion, and utilises young people in their adverts to obviously lure young people to consume their product. The manufacturer of an innocent looking alcohol-infused cider drink spends millions of rupees to sell its product. How are we countering such an aggressive push for alcohol products? What relevant awareness information is out there and accessible to children to counter such a surge? Nothing! The Ministry of Health and Population does not even have a desk or a single focal person looking into the harmful use of alcohol. The World Health Organisation once called alcohol the biggest drug in Nepal, and we have zero interventions to prevent alcohol use or harmful use of alcohol.
Nepal is yet to see a robust drug use prevention programme even though the government has been discussing drafting a prevention strategy for a long time. A costed and evidence-informed prevention action plan is the need of the hour with equal commitment and ownership of the ministries of Home Affairs, Education, Women Children and Social Welfare, Health and Population and Youth and Sports. The issue of drug use demands a collective response from all ministries to produce meaningful results. Inter-ministerial collaboration has always remained a major challenge when it comes to responding to drug use, and this seriously needs to change. Also, there is a real need for child focused organisations that are housing national HIV or drug response programmes to invest in drug use prevention programmes for children. We have wasted much time. It’s time to start with a clean slate; it’s time to start listening to our children.
Sinha is a social-anthropologist with an interest in substance use and child protection issues
Published: 26-06-2017 08:09