On the 11th of February, my colleagues and I from Collectif Urgence Toxida deponed in front of the Commission of Inquiry on Drug Trafficking (which by the way is not getting much media coverage, I wonder why?).  As you would expect from any professional organisation, we prepared ourselves beforehand (meetings, discussions, compiling evidence-based facts) and thought we were ready to face the panel of commissioners, to share our field experience, to make sound recommendations on how to improve existing programmes and update our outdated drug policies.

What followed were 3 hours of questioning, at times shouting, and threats that in the report to be submitted by the commission, will be mentioned clearly that: NGOS are not divulging names of drug traffickers and thus not cooperating (for a while during the shouting, I was wondering if I missed an episode in my life; where I trained in investigative tactics, hand-to-hand combat, use of weapons, and I was in fact a super-cop fighting crime…).

Let me be clear, I understand that the commission wants to get to the root of what they call the Drug Problem, and one of their missions is to find drug traffickers. BUT I have to ask as one of my colleagues pointed out the other day: who are the real drug traffickers? By “traffickers”, is the commission targeting: petty drug dealers selling small quantities of drugs; or the “zoke” delivering drugs, or still the mafia bosses (here I have to refer to what I have seen in movies, with millions hoarded, business fronts to launder money, expensive clothes, and perhaps having a tiger as a pet…) which the law seems never (or very rarely) able to place behind bars?

NGOs are often born out of the necessity to address a social issue that affects communities and which all too often governments fail to resolve efficiently because of bureaucratic red tape and the failure to provide the constant line of direct support needed within communities itself. In that regard, NGOs are closer to communities than the government, having built strong links, bonds with communities that are sustained over the years by a close proximity, and endearing presence. These bonds take years to build, and in the case of key affected populations (groups who are extremely vulnerable, often marginalised by society), it is even harder to do so.

So, while presenting to the commission what we do in the field, and the close proximity that we have with key affected populations, it is clear from the way the commission reacted to this that it believes NGOs have names of drug traffickers and are obliged to divulge these in an open court (yes, it is open to the public) to understand the implications (read this article). When we protested, tried to explain that we do NOT have any names, tried to explain that we focus on social and health issues, that trust built over years involves clear limits and boundaries that we do NOT cross, our protests fell on deaf ears. Instead we were warned that a very negative note will be inserted in the report on NGOs, and people working in NGOs. The same warning has been issued to several NGOs so far.

To me, it seems the commission has forgotten that the Mauritius police force has a special unit called the Anti Drug and Smuggling Unit – ADSU – made up of brave police officers, who are trying to do their best to find drug traffickers (irrespective of which kind, and sadly consumers as well!) with the very limited means they have (in terms of technology, equipments, resources). NGOs do not have the same mandate as the police, we do NOT have the expertise, the manpower, the resources to investigate drug trafficking (contrary to common belief, NGOs working in the drug field STRUGGLE to find funds to function, and pay staff).

When I deponed in front of the commission and I explained that if we really want to get to the source of the so called drug problem (names of traffickers aside, as once one goes, another crops up), we need to:

  1. Reevaluate our laws, and drug policies in place by learning from the various evidence based changes happening world wide
  2. Set up and implement a national drug control master plan focusing on the four pillars (prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and law enforcement) drug strategy, that has proven to work under the aegis of a National Drug Secretariat (regrouping all stakeholders)
  3. Set up a drug observatory to constantly carry out research on drugs available in Mauritius, and develop adequate programmes for people who need it
  4. Set up addiction units in hospitals across the country
  5. Work towards the eradication of poverty, and reducing the large disparity between the rich and the poor
  6. Improve our education system so as not to leave anyone behind and add to the cycle of poverty

As to me unless we understand the social origins of the problematic drug use (addiction to a substance that seriously hinders one’s life), we are never going to deal successfully with addressing the core issues that lead to such problems. I also mentioned the work of Dr Carl Hart and that of Dr Gabor Mate.

I have very strong doubts that these will make it in the report the commission will submit after carrying out its investigation.

With the UNGASS United Nations General Assembly Special Session Nations coming up and no word as of yet as to who will be representing the Mauritian government in April 2016 in New York, and the reluctance of current authorities to look at the evidence-based findings available, I fear that Mauritius will linger behind, and still adopt strategies that have proven to fail.

Let’s hope I’m wrong.