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Sri Lankan police officers in protective costumes prepare to destroy a haul of seized cocaine. Sri Lankan police officers in protective costumes prepare to destroy a haul of seized cocaine at an industrial facility, Katunayaka, Sri Lanka, Jan. 15, 2018 (AP photo by Eranga Jayawardena).

How Sri Lanka, a Growing Drug Trafficking Hub, Is Fighting Drug Abuse at Home

Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018

Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing series about national drug policies in various countries around the world.

On Jan. 18, authorities in Sri Lanka destroyed $108 million worth of cocaine seized from a single shipment in the port of Colombo, which is a growing hub for international drug trafficking. While Sri Lanka does not appear to be a final destination for many of the drugs transiting the country, drug abuse has spiked in recent years, prompting the government to launch ambitious measures aimed at mitigating, and possibly eliminating, drug use by 2020. In an email interview, Sunimalee Madurawala, a research economist at the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka, discusses the country’s current drug policies, how they have evolved and the challenges ahead.

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WPR: What are the central components of Sri Lanka’s approach to combating drug use?

Sunimalee Madurawala: Sri Lanka’s approach is enshrined in its National Policy for the Prevention and Control of Drug Abuse of 2005, which was amended in 2016. Several of the amendments were incorporated to strengthen the laws against the production, smuggling, trafficking and use of illicit drugs in the country, in order to address both international drug trafficking and health issues, such as HIV and AIDS among drug addicts. The new policy framework also seeks the active involvement of different stakeholders—government institutions, the private sector and other agencies—in combatting drug abuse and illicit trafficking in Sri Lanka.

The central government agency is the National Dangerous Drugs Control Board, or NDDCB, which was established in 1984. The NDDCB has a vast purview and wide-ranging powers, including formulating and reviewing national drug policy, coordinating the activities of relevant agencies, crafting treatment, rehabilitation and education programs, conducting studies and coordinating with regional and international organizations involved in drug control activities.

Various branches of the national police handle actual drug enforcement. The principal legal statute regulating drugs is the Poisons, Opium and Dangerous Drugs Ordinance of 1935, a colonial-era statute that has been amended several times over the years. Sri Lanka is also a signatory of major international conventions related to drug abuse and trafficking, such as the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971 and the United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988.

WPR: How significant is drug abuse in Sri Lanka, and how have efforts to combat it changed in recent years?

Madurawala: The NDDCB reported that there were 79,378 drug-related arrests in 2016. Although this was a slight decrease from 2015, the number was way up from 2012, when there were 47,926 cases. Out of the total drug-related arrests in 2016, 35 percent were for heroin and 60 percent were for cannabis. The NDDCB reports indicate that abuse of psychotropic substances is also becoming a significant social and health problem. Although these are controlled substances, they are widely reported to be available on the black market.

Drug abuse has huge economic and social implications in Sri Lanka, a country of around 21 million people with a minimum wage of just $2.50 per day. Sri Lanka’s daily consumption of drugs reportedly amounts to almost $3 million—a huge burden to the economy and the finances of individual households. In 2016, the total number of people treated for drug abuse was 2,355. Furthermore, the total number of drug-related imprisonments in 2016 was reported to be 24,060. More than 90 percent of those who were imprisoned were men, leading to many negative consequences, such as poverty due to income loss for families and broken homes.

President Maithripala Sirisena launched an island-wide drug prevention campaign called “A Country Free of Intoxicants” in 2016, part of his Presidential Task Force on Drug Prevention that has the ambitious goal of gradually eliminating the overall consumption of alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs. The task force formulates joint initiatives, implements and supervises the national drug prevention program at the grassroot and national levels, manages the financial provisions allocated for drug eradication and distributes educational materials. A special program led by the police and all three branches of the military aims to further strengthen preventive measures taken by the government.

WPR: What are the challenges facing the government’s aim of drastically reducing, or even eliminating, drug use by 2020?

Madurawala: Sri Lanka is not a producer or manufacturer of illicit drugs, with the exception of cannabis. It is, however, an important hub for international drug trafficking, including opium and heroin. This is mainly a result of the country’s strategic location, especially on important maritime and aviation shipping routes, for drugs originating mainly in India and Pakistan. Fighting against illicit drug trafficking is a challenge for Sri Lanka because of its lack of resources, both financial and human. More needs to be done in terms of capacity-building and training officers to counter the drug trade. Sri Lanka’s coast guard, for example, was only created in 2007.

Domestically, the government needs to allocate more money to the rehabilitation of drug users and reintegration programs for the victims of drugs. Youth prevention is key, too. According to the NDDCB, around 20 percent of illicit drug users in Sri Lanka are between the age of 19 and 25, and 38 percent are between the age of 26 and 35. It is also a widely known that large-scale drug dealers evade the law with the support of politicians and others with influence.

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