Cyprus Mail

Cannabis users choosing rehab to avoid jail

CM photo archive

By Angelos Anastasiou

THE LATEST drugs bust involving three kilos of cannabis came in the wake of a new report highlighting an evident increase in drug trafficking in Cyprus in recent years, bringing the national strategy to combat addiction to the forefront of public debate.

In its 2013 annual report, the government’s Anti-Drugs Council (ADC) claimed that while applications for rehabilitation therapy by heroin users stabilised or even fell in recent years in line with EU trends, a “large increase” had been recorded for applications for therapy by cannabis users.

The ADC directly attributed the increase to a protocol of cooperation agreed with the police’s Anti-Drug Squad and the health ministry in 2010, which offers first-time offenders between 14 and 24 years of age arrested for drug use the option of rehabilitation therapy at the government’s mental health services in lieu of prosecution.

Given the choice, it is likely that very few cannabis users would opt to take their chances in court, with most gladly choosing a few weeks of rehabilitation instead.

Although the ADC counts such instances as a blessing, arguing that more individuals taking advantage of the protocol can only be a good thing even if they never intended to do so had they not been arrested, the measure is wide open to abuse by youngsters with no appetite for help, who are merely trying to stay out of prison.

The ADC said it was unable to comment on the effectiveness of the measure, citing its role as a coordinating body as opposed to policy enforcer.

“We are not aware of such instances,” said ADC official Eva Symeonidou. “In our view, even drug users who had no intention of joining a rehabilitation programme prior to their arrest can only benefit from referral. Certainly, it can do them no harm.”

But the numbers are staggering – according to the ADC’s stats, individuals referred to one of the state’s mental health facilities under this protocol rose from 102 in 2009 to 278 in 2013.

Mental health services have repeatedly reported being understaffed and struggling to cope with their workload. With both the MHS head and nurses publicly warning in recent months that the situation is barely containable, increased cases of drug users who may have no interest in the treatment they are offered may well be a waste of resources.

“We are in the process of incorporating non-governmental organisations into the protocol, so that they can undertake some of the burden of treatment needs,” said Symeonidou.

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