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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Away from the media circus, Sri Lanka’s latest “war against drugs” is nothing more than sound bites

Image: The much-hyped & Deshabandu’s “war against drugs” campaign uses the same photographs of confiscated vehicles from 2020 as its success in 2023! ( medialk.com)

Ranga Jayasuriya.

No wonder the new acting IGP Deshabandu Tennakoon thought a fresh crime-busting initiative was the way to promote himself for permanency in the post.

That would still be a tall order considering a Supreme Court ruling on December 14 that found him and three others violating the fundamental rights of a citizen detained at the Mirihana Police Station. The Supreme Court ordered Mr Tennakoon and three other officers to pay the petitioner Rs. 2 million in compensation, and ordered the National Police Commission to take action against Senior DIG Tennakoon.

However, none of the insalubrious details of the new chief of Police should negate the fact that Sri Lanka has a drug problem – still a moderate one however by international comparison. Though Sri Lanka has a lower homicide rate (3.4 per 100,000) by international comparison and a lower crime rate (41.39 per 100,000), drug-related violence makes up the bulk of criminality. Drugs fuel both the underworld and petty theft. For instance, 74% of the inmates who were imprisoned in the year 2021 were drug-related offenders.

Therefore, in some ways, it is sad that the latest initiative to combat drugs and the underworld is tainted by the credibility of the IGP himself. It also highlights a perennial problem in Sri Lanka where personal scheming and politicisation have tainted institutions, undermining their credibility at home and abroad. This also questions the sincerity of the campaign itself and its durability as a measure of crime control. However, Public Security Minister Tiran Alles has described such concerns as shades of hypocrisy (‘kuhakakama’, he said).

Petty political and personal calculations devoid of a long-term national plan have guided similarly much publicized previous efforts to combat the underworld and drug trafficking in the past. They ran out of steam as expected; TV cameras moved, and the underworld was back in action.

Maithripala Sirisena, a former President, launched a campaign to eradicate the underworld. Still, besides initial newspaper headlines and some political capital for Mr Sirisena, it had very little practical impact in curtailing underworld crime or the drug menace. Instead, when Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as expected, launched one of his own crime-busting initiatives, it was revealed that some prisons had provided special suits for jailed underworld kingpins.

Now, the Police Department provides a daily countdown on the latest country-wide crime-busting initiative, code named ‘Yukthiya’. According to the Public Security Ministry, 13,666 suspects have been arrested during the first week. 717 suspects were placed under detention orders for further investigations. 174 suspects are being investigated for acquiring illegal assets, and 1,097 drug addicts have been directed to rehabilitation centres.

The Police Narcotics Bureau and the Special Bureau have arrested 1,107 suspects out of 4,665 individuals listed as Island Re-Convicted Criminals.

These numbers, though impressive, are not different from the previous initiatives. Protagonists of each previous mission prided themselves in the number of arrests and confiscated drug hauls. But that each subsequent mission catches more, suggests that such numbers were not more than an eyewash.

Architects of the current initiative should look into why previous measures failed if their own is not to become another failure.

Why Have Previous Measures Failed?

The previous measures failed almost singularly, for they lacked a long-term national plan to address two interrelated problems: the underworld and drug recidivism.

Of the two, combating the underworld, of which the primary mode of revenue is drug trafficking, is the easier one to accomplish. Despite how menacing the name sounds, Sri Lanka’s underworld is child’s play in international comparison. In contrast, the coercive apparatus of the state is overwhelming. Setting up a dedicated unit and redeploying several companies of the Police Special Task Force under its authority to combat underworld crime, gather intelligence, and intercept underworld activities would provide a long deterrent against underworld crime. The STF has been repeatedly assigned to fight the underworld ad-hoc. Still, such deployments are guided by short-term operational needs and personal calculations, and lack a cohesive long-term agenda.

A dedicated task force staffed by a fraction of the STF’s current strength (8000 personnel) retrained to specific duties and provided with a legal warrant could provide a long-term solution. Such measures may also help achieve the optimum utilization of some of the resources and skills of the bulky STF. The second, drug recidivism, is far more complicated. No country has yet found the magic formula.

As much as drug offenders make up three-quarters of the prison population, there are also repeat offenders. Heroin, for instance, has a relapsing rate of 80-90 per cent, and Methamphetamine, called Ice by the street name, has a higher relapsing rate. This means every four out of five rehabilitated drug addicts would return to the habit.
Where there is demand, suppressing the supply of drugs would tempt new players to enter the play, considering the high premium it entails. As such, it would create a never-ending cat-and-mouse game.

Thus, curtailing the demand should go alongside combating the underworld supply chains of narcotics.

Rehabilitation is the number one option. However, as evidence would reveal, the rehabilitation of drug addicts by court orders, generally issued at the request of the accused, provides a short-term solution with the almost certainty of relapse and future criminality.

Without devising measures to address the high recidivism rates of rehabilitated drug addicts, rehabilitation only provides a fleeting respite. Such measures should include psychosocial, economic, medicinal, legal, and community means.

To begin with, the rehabilitation of repeated drug offenders should be compulsory, mandated by the court, and their post-release and integration should be subjected to oversight by the local Police or related agencies.

Some human rights captains have opposed compulsory rehabilitation, preferring voluntary rehabilitation and the option to opt in and opt out of the rehabilitation process.

That is one of kind of a cloud cuckoo thinking. Given the extreme level of drug dependency, the vast majority of drug offenders would opt out when the first exit is available. Also, few drug addicts voluntarily opt for rehabilitation in the first place – many in Sri Lanka pick it as an escape from prison. Drug addiction is self-harm, incrementally leading to unfathomable familial problems and social hazards. Extreme drug dependency negates the argument of personal freedom. Capacity for self-governance, as John Stuart Mill defines, is the primary criterion for the exercise of many freedoms.

Sri Lanka lacks a coherent drug rehabilitation strategy. Nor does it allocate sufficient resources for such an initiative. Military-run rehabilitation centres such as Kandakadu have witnessed internal riots and allegations of ill-treatment. It is equally important that (given the importance accorded to it) one should study the post-rehabilitation performance of the inmates of such institutions. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Kandakadu, for instance, has a very high relapse rate, which may partly be due to the type of inmates it gets; the worst of the hardened drug users. However, measures to combat high recidivism are crucial if such initiatives are to have a long-term effect.

Probably, considering the long-term brain function of drug addiction, high recidivism cannot be fully addressed unless new frontier drugs are developed. That might leave the law enforcement agencies with the second but unsavoury option: the continuous monitoring of the rehabilitated drug addicts, with psychosocial help – as well as the potential for rearrest and rehabilitation where the terms of initial release are violated.

However, such an initiative should be conducted under judicial oversight with a mechanism for accountability and measures to check abuses in place.

It should also be scientific and multidisciplinary. It should provide career training and skills for the reintegration of drug addicts.

However, away from the media circus, the government’s latest initiative offers nothing more than sound bites. Without a well-thought-out and well-funded national strategy, the current drug bust would be no different from its predecessors — a deliberate failure.

Follow @RangaJayasuriya on X

The original Caption: Beyond The Media Circus Of ‘Yukthiya’, The Anti-Crime Bust

Courtesy of Daily Mirror


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