After years of alarming reports on drug abuse, especially among the youth, the Government has put its final stamp of disapproval on suppliers of illicit drugs. A life sentence now awaits anyone found guilty of selling illicit drugs.
Life in prison is the country's highest sentence.
In its article 263, the new penal code says that any person who, unlawfully produces, transforms, transports, stores, gives to another or sells narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances commits an offence.
"Upon conviction, he or she is liable to life imprisonment and a fine of more than Rwf20 million and not more than Rwf30 million in regard to severe narcotic drugs," it reads in part.
A psychotropic drug is any drug capable of affecting the mind, emotions, and behaviour. However, some legal drugs, such as lithium for bipolar disorder, are psychotropic.
Many illicit drugs, such as cocaine, are also psychotropic.
The same article stipulates that 20 to 25 years of imprisonment and a fine between Rwf15 million and Rwf20 million will be levied in regards to severe narcotic drugs.
In case of simple narcotics, a sentence of between seven and ten years and a fine ranging between Rwf5 million and Rwf10 million is stipulated.
A health Ministerial Order establishes a list of narcotic drugs that constitute each category.
The amended penalties have been widely received positively, with many saying that it was a major step towards nipping the drug issue in the bud.
Previously, any person who unlawfully made, transformed, imported, or sold narcotics and psychotropic substances within the country, was liable to a term of imprisonment from three to five years and a fine of between Rwf500,000 and Rwf5 million.
The Minister for Justice, Johnston Busingye, who has been one of those at the forefront of appealing for more stringent measures against the crime, told The New Times that though there was still a long road ahead, the amendments were a ' huge relief'.
"The changes are a relief of course but it is still a broad subject. There is need for many more approaches and the law is one aspect. We can do more in terms of mobilising communities, sharing information, putting more effort in drug rehabilitation programmes, engaging the youth in frank debates and conversations on drug issues, and capitalising on the role of the family in the fight against drugs," he said.
The Chairperson of the Rwanda Civil Society Platform, Jean Léonard Sekanyange told The New Times in a telephone interview that the improved punitive measures would make anyone interested in this business think twice.
"People had become fearless because the punishments were not deterrent enough. Most of them would be sentenced only for them to join the same business after release. Tightening the punishment is obviously something that we are happy about because this drug problem is an issue in our society," he said.
Sekanyange, however, pointed out that there is still need for mass mobilisation, where sensitisation about drug use and its permanent consequences becomes part of the society's daily lives.
"We need to focus on prevention. Teachers should include it in their lessons, preachers in their sermons and parents should constantly talk about it to their children. We need to discourage more people from going that direction," he said.
In December last year, the Minister for Local Government, Francis Kaboneka, appealed to Members of Parliament reviewing the Penal Code to introduce harsher punishments for repeat drug offenders.
"Instead of someone found guilty being sentenced to two years or so, only for them to return to selling drugs, the sentence should be more punitive and I suggest a life sentence. That way, it will be deterrent," he said.
Kaboneka expressed his frustration with the slow progress in the fight against drugs, which he attributed to several factors, including porous borders and unharmonised laws across the regional countries.
The Prosecutor-General, Jean-Bosco Mutangana, who appeared before the same committee, told the MPs that in dealing with drugs, there were still challenges related to culture, which does not encourage 'finger pointing' and some local leaders, who were involved in the trade, among others.
"Mutual legal assistance where we require cooperation on criminal matters is still a challenge. Some crimes, like human trafficking, are still emerging and we are still in the process of educating people about them," he said.