For decades Mauritius has been a popular destination for traffickers of traditional drugs such as heroin and cannabis. Despite the hefty prison sentences the offence carries, there are daily media reports on drug seizures and the arrest of traffickers.
Recently though the island has seen a rise in synthetic drugs. Each year since 2015, the number of people arrested for synthetic drug offences has doubled, reaching 1 059 in 2018. Public health institutions have also recorded growing in-patient cases of drug abuse - 44% of drug abuse cases in 2017 were related to new psychoactive substances (NPS).
The ENACT Organised Crime Index for Africa ranks Mauritius number one in the synthetic drug trade in Southern Africa and in the top 10 on the continent.
Synthetic drugs are manufactured in laboratories using chemicals to mimic traditional narcotics or hallucinogens such as marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, LSD, amphetamine-type stimulants and even morphine. Based on seizure data, the most common types of these drugs in Mauritius are synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones.
Synthetic drugs present a new and worrying era for the drug market in Mauritius
The history of drugs in the country is key to understanding the problem. Substance abuse in Mauritius dates back to the 1970s when heroin was first introduced on the island. The problem has escalated significantly, with the 2010 World Drug Report revealing that Mauritius had the highest prevalence of opioid use in Africa.
The government has struggled to contain the problem despite adopting a holistic public health stance on drug abuse by moving away from the traditional 'war on drugs' approach. Various initiatives have been introduced, including harm-reduction strategies, needle and syringe exchange programmes, opioid substitution treatment and drug awareness programmes.
The change in approach has shown some success, notably a reduction in cannabis and traditional opioid use such as heroin. But the synthetic drug problem is increasing, and is a burden on both the law enforcement and public health systems.
Former attorney-general and justice minister Rama Valayden told media that 'there is no way to win the fight against synthetic drugs.' He said drug producers were replacing compounds in the drug faster than law enforcement could detect them.
Producers of synthetic drugs are replacing compounds in the drug faster than police can detect them
The drugs are obtained in various forms. Chemicals used for their production can be imported online in powder or liquid form, and it's estimated that about 95% of those ingredients are imported from China. Unlike heroin or cocaine, synthetics can be produced at home using products such as pesticides, rubber, rat poison and detergents, among others.
This changes the dynamics of the traditional drug trafficking system. There's little reliance on the hierarchical structure of a producer or supplier at the top, transport networks into the country and street-level dealing. Synthetic drug systems have 'democratised' the drug economy - it's now open to anyone.
Despite this, the government has made some strides in addressing the problem. A commission of inquiry was established in 2015 to 'inquire into, and report on, all aspects of drug trafficking in Mauritius.' One of its tasks was to look into the availability of new types of drugs, including synthetic and designer drugs.
The commission report, released in 2018, made over 400 recommendations and government has been acting on some and evaluating others. One includes establishing the National Drug Observatory to monitor illicit drug use, abuse and trafficking in the country.
Synthetic drug systems have 'democratised' the drug economy - it's open to anyone
In 2019 government launched the National Drug Control Master Plan 2019-2023 focusing on: supply reduction, demand reduction and harm reduction. A mechanism to coordinate legislation, an implementation framework, monitoring and evaluation, and strategic information was also included. The plan emphasises three aspects to succeed: capacity building, respect and observance of human rights, and gender mainstreaming.
The national plan has practical objectives and clear outputs, but will it curb the synthetic drug problem? To succeed policies must be practical and relevant, and implemented properly. Key aspects to consider are young people's willingness to experiment with new drugs and the low cost of manufacturing of these narcotics.
In the short term, government could use existing drug laws or adapt them to be more responsive. Coupled with other forms of legislation, more comprehensive approaches could be created. A new law could also be passed specifically for synthetic drugs focusing on the import, export and sale of any addictive or harmful psychoactive substance. An example is Ireland's Psychoactive Substance Act of 2010.
An early warning system based in the Mauritius National Drug Observatory could monitor synthetic drugs and provide an understanding of its market and characteristics. This information could inform policy and prevention and awareness programmes aimed at reducing the harmful consumption of these substances.
Synthetic drugs present a new era for the drug market in Mauritius. The low price and availability of the ingredients coupled with greater reach to buyers through advanced technology enable traffickers to remain a step ahead of law enforcement. Unless this pattern changes, traffickers will have the upper hand and the synthetic drugs problem will expand on the island.
Richard Chelin, Researcher, ENACT project, ISS
This article was first published by the ENACT project. ENACT is funded by the European Union (EU). The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of the author and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the EU.