UN officer commends progressive approach to drug abuse

A visiting official from the United Nations has praised Macau’s progressive view of substance abuse, which tends to regard it as a health problem rather than a criminal one. The approach is unusual in most of East and Southeast Asia.

Speaking in her personal capacity on the sidelines of a local workshop yesterday, Karen Peters, Associate Drugs and Health Officer of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), commended Macau’s work in preventing and intervening in drug addiction.

The two-day workshop was organized by The Association of Rehabilitation of Drug Abusers of Macao (ARTM), with the support of the University of St. Joseph, while the UNODC was the training entity.

The UN’s theme this year for the prevention and intervention of substance use is “Justice for Health, Health for Justice,” which encourages all parts of the world to consider substance abuse as medical problem instead of a criminal problem.

The Social Welfare Bureau and the Health Bureau have been collaborating with non-government organizations (NGOs) such as the ARTM to operate a needle retrieval program.

Substance users who inject narcotics with needles and syringes can dispose of their used apparatus with the help of the Social Welfare Bureau. Users will not be referred to the police or prosecuted.

This has proven effective in preventing needle-related accidents and the spread of certain diseases. It can also help NGOs and the government to keep track of and provide support to substance users.

Peters commented on the program, saying that it is not a secret. She admitted it is one practice in Macau that is not allowed in many other jurisdictions.

“[Other places] consider it encouraging drug use, but with the science behind that has never been proven,” said Peters. “The program [provides] positive health benefits to the users and, when it’s correctly administered, it also has positive social benefits.” The UNODC officer described this as one area in which Macau excels.

Another “medal of excellence” that Macau obtained, in Peters’ personal view, is that the work of drug control, apart from within the authorization of the law-enforcement agencies, is mainly overseen by the social welfare branch of the government.

“It is not very common. Usually the drug control agencies are situated in public security [branches),” Peters commented. “The difference is how you address drugs: do you address drugs [with] a social welfare and public health perspective or a public security perspective.”

According to Peters, the practice of placing drug control under social welfare is very specific to Macau, compared with other jurisdictions in Asia. “It makes our work with the Macau government much easier because they are always ready to address the problem with social welfare and public health policy,” added Peters.

She further added that UNODC experiences show that they have to convince governments in many places to take this approach when dealing with substance use prevention and intervention.

Substance use has been considered a health problem rather than a security one in many European countries. The use of substances has since been decriminalized and, often, since they will not face criminal procedures, substance users became more willing to seek medical support.

Questioned as to whether this approach can or will be adopted in Macau, ARTM president Augusto Nogueira replied that analysis has been started.

“[We want to see if] drug users can be given other alternatives, for example, community work, counseling or out-patient [treatments],” Nogueira explained. “So, [all these options] instead of sending them to prison. We will continue to discuss that next year.”

Both Nogueira and Peters stressed that the options only apply to people solely using substances. Those with other criminal charges will need to go through normal criminal procedures.

Presiding over the workshop was Professor Victor Teixeira from the university, who thanked both UNODC and ARTM for helping Macau to train future professionals. AL

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