28 February 2018

Mauritius: Analysis - The rise of synthetic drugs in Paradise Island (Part 2)

The rising tide of synthetic drugs in Mauritius was discussed and four major findings were established in Part 1, published on the 16th February 2018 in l'express.

Firstly, synthetic drugs are proliferating at an extraordinary rate in our towns and villages. Secondly, an estimated two out of five youngsters are consumers of synthetic drugs. Thirdly, the supply is abundant due to the ease with which these drugs are imported and also produced locally. And fourthly, the price is really cheap, with a dose (called "pocket") costing around Rs 100 to Rs 150.

L'express published an article on 16th February 2018, stating that an estimated 20,000 doses were being sold daily in the Port-Louis region only. A quick calculation reveals that the sales revenue must be between Rs 2 million to Rs 3 million per day and, therefore, generating some Rs 700 million to Rs 1 billion annually, in Port-Louis alone!

Drugs are sold for hard cash and the proceeds are either hidden or used through a money laundering process of placement, layering and integration, to acquire assets and property. This is why in December 2015, our Constitution was amended and the law on "unexplained wealth" was enacted. Government is certainly aware that the Integrity Reporting Board chaired by Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, KG PC QC, requires adequate resources and appropriate funding to track, confiscate and curb the substantial illicit and unexplained wealth generated by selling synthetic drugs in our country!

In this context, any argument to the effect that we are in a slow-moving economy and disturbance to the money flow and related multiplier effect created by such activity may well decrease consumption and investment is futile. Synthetic drugs are extremely dangerous for the health of our youth, creating addiction, paranoia, zombie-like behaviour and also death. We reaffirm that before it is too late, government has to come up with swift policy decisions and workable solutions. It is indeed a matter of utmost priority!

The Reform Party conducted two internal workshops to analyse the root causes of the proliferation of synthetic drugs. It was identified that adolescents, college students and persons with limited means are directly targeted by synthetic drug dealers. It was also established that a pouliah of cannabis is sold for around Rs 300. This is 3 times the price of a "pocket" of synthetic drug, which can be bought for Rs 100. In short, synthetic drugs have priced cannabis out of the market!

It is not only the higher price of cannabis, which has reduced its consumption, but also because in places like Tamarin, Grand-Baie and in our main towns, cannabis is not sold for less than one gram. This costs between Rs 1,500 and Rs 3,000 for each gram, depending on the quality. Therefore, a buyer of cannabis needs to have more cash available with him or her. Seemingly, cannabis dealers operate in this way to mitigate the risk of getting caught. They would rather sell one gram to one buyer, instead of having to deal "pouliahs" with 10 different individual buyers and obtain the same amount of money.

After the internal workshops conducted, the Reform Party decided to have more views and suggestions from the public by opening through Facebook and private e-mail the debate on whether the medicalisation, decriminalisation or legalisation of cannabis would help in reducing the problem of proliferation of synthetic drugs in our country. The overwhelming response exceeded our expectations as over one thousand persons engaged by leaving comments, sending private e-mails and making phone calls. Of course, with such a delicate and sensitive subject matter, the views and suggestions expressed were deeply passionate.

Most of the respondents are in favour of helping victims through the "medicalisation" of cannabis. They emphasised the positive medical impacts of the plant, suggesting that Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol, two of the active substances in cannabis, are increasingly being used to treat cancer. In some cases, even stage 4 cancer has been eased by using cannabis oil. It is also used in some countries to reduce the secondary effects of chemotherapy and to treat epilepsy, sleep disorders, fits and seizures, Parkinson's disease and bipolar disorders. In terms of the costs of such treatment, they argued that it is more affordable to use cannabis and its derivatives for its medical merits.

One Mauritian parent whose child suffers from epilepsy explained how she had spent a fortune on conventional pharmaceutical medicines every month, without any success. She explained the reasons why the child needs access to cannabis-based treatment, which is not available in Mauritius. Certainly, there is a need to invest in scientific research in an open-minded way and to raise awareness of the Mauritian population accordingly.

"It was also established that a pouliah of cannabis is sold for around Rs 300. This is 3 times the price of a 'pocket' of synthetic drug, which can be bought for Rs 100."

In the same context, it is also possible for the proliferation of synthetic drugs to be addressed by giving access, upon prescription, to medical cannabis and its derivatives. This will not be uncommon in Mauritius as methadone is already being distributed in a controlled manner to hard drug users.

With regard to decriminalisation or "depenalisation", this would entail making consumption of cannabis a legal activity, which will undoubtedly push up the demand for cannabis. However, the sale of cannabis would remain an illegal activity, which will limit the supply. In pure economic terms, when demand exceeds supply, the price will go up further. Understandably, decriminalisation or "depenalisation" of cannabis may well push users even closer to synthetic drugs, because of the cheaper prices. It will, therefore, not be a "quick-fix" solution to the current predicament on proliferation of synthetic drugs.

It is also true, however, that every time a youngster is arrested with a "pouliah" of cannabis, he gets a criminal record, thus preventing him from having a clean "morality certificate", which, in turn, limits his prospects of finding a job. He becomes unemployable for at least ten years and very often, such youngsters can't find decent jobs and decide to earn a living by working for the dealers in order to survive. In fact, this exacerbates the current problem of proliferation of synthetic drugs in our country. It is high time for our laws to be changed to address this obnoxious state of affairs.

With regard to the "legalisation" of cannabis, the proponents explained the disadvantages of repressive laws and policies, which have clearly not worked as intended by policymakers. The rising tide of synthetic and other hard drugs in Mauritius clearly shows this. Prohibition creates a black market, which only benefits drug dealers. As published recently, even when they get caught and are thrown in prison, they still continue their activity, which flourishes more and more due to inherent corruption in the system.

Proponents of legalisation clearly blame the prohibition of cannabis for the proliferation of synthetic drugs in Mauritius. According to them, legal and affordable cannabis would have acted as a barrier against deadly substitutes. They propose that cannabis be legalised and that citizens be allowed a controlled quantity for personal consumption, and/or be allowed to grow a controlled amount of cannabis at home - thus beating the black market.

It is further argued that the arrests, investigations, prosecutions and imprisonment of cannabis consumers have a huge cost for the State and the Mauritian tax payers. Instead, they would have preferred to pay taxes for fighting the import and distribution of deadly class A drugs like synthetic drug, heroine, brown sugar, ecstasy, MDMA, crystal meth, ketamine, LSD and subutex - all of which are apparently available at will and openly sold on our streets and rave parties. It is the opinion of these proponents that the Anti- Drug Smuggling Unit should be more efficient and targeted in their approach. It is also their opinion that cannabis consumers should not be arrested.

It was specifically pointed out that there is a lot of discrimination in the way the law is enforced. Although users of cannabis are to be found in every social class, community and region of the island, arrests are disproportionately focused on people coming from less favourable backgrounds in the cités or résidences.

Another group of proponents argue that cannabis is less dangerous than alcohol and cigarettes, which are legal products - and on which the government depends more and more for taxes. There is empirical evidence that cannabis is organic and less dangerous than sugar and saturated fats! Apparently, there isn't one reported case worldwide where cannabis led to death, as compared to synthetic drugs, hard drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and even sugar!

Alcohol may lead to domestic violence and strong physical addiction, whereas consumers of cannabis tend to be peaceful, relaxed and not in the mood to get physically violent. In this respect, the proponents of cannabis claim that man has this inherent habit of seeking little pleasures of life and different forms of relaxation. These proponents claim their right to use the product in a recreational way, very much like other people consume a glass of wine while having dinner. They agree that, like in Réunion Island, there needs to be mechanisms in place to test road drivers for THC level, very much like it is the case in Mauritius with alcohol testing.

Among those who are against the legalisation of cannabis, there are two categories of respondents. Firstly, those who are not open to debate at all. And secondly, those who expressed their views by stating that cannabis is a "drug" - full stop! They strongly believe that the proliferation of synthetic drugs cannot be solved by relaxing the policies on another "drug". The argument that cannabis is a "gateway" drug was put forward, i.e. they believe that the consumption of cannabis is a stepping stone for the consumption of harder drugs, such as brown sugar.

They fear that legalising cannabis will lead to more people consuming it and even trying harder drugs. They fear that cannabis consumption will be very difficult to control within the work place, thus impacting on labour productivity. The issues of drug driving were also raised, whereby in the absence of proper controls and testing, more and more drivers would drive under the influence of cannabis, thus increasing the risk of road accidents which have already reached unprecedented levels in Mauritius.

Those against the legalisation of cannabis stated that they cannot trust the government to grant and distribute licences in a fair manner to individuals and/or companies to distribute these products, even in medical form. Some further mentioned that Mauritius is a conservative country, comprising different religions and groups, which would not support such policies. For them, once cannabis is legalised, there is no going back!

We conclude that whether cannabis should be medicalised or legalised (or not) is a decision which belongs to the people of Mauritius. This can only be done through a referendum, if government so decides or through the next general elections as party policy - if a political party/alliance has the guts to include the legalisation of cannabis in its political electoral programme.

The ban on cannabis in Mauritius dates back to the 19th century and was inherited from the British settlers. It was NOT the choice of any independent Mauritian citizen!

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