A Lebanese non-profit organisation has launched a campaign to empower young people who are being criminalised for drug use, and to call on legislators to adopt an alternative drug policy approach.
Skoun, the organisation behind the initiative, is a Beirut-based organisation that offers free and confidential drug treatment to those who seek it. Alongside its clinical work, Skoun campaigns for an end to Lebanon’s punitive drug policies, and advocates for policies rooted in humanity, self-determination, health, and justice.
The organisation launched its Know Your Rights campaign in September. The project has three goals: empowering young people to know their rights during drug-related encounters with the law; shedding light on police abuse of power; and, stimulating debate around the effectiveness of current drug policies.
In Lebanon, most people who are found to be in possession of illegal drugs receive a prison sentence.
The dissemination of information about Lebanese drug laws and police behaviour is highly important as many people being searched, detained, or arrested for alleged drug crimes are seemingly unaware when their rights are being violated.
In an online video produced to accompany the campaign, young Lebanese people warn the audience: “Suspicion alone is not enough evidence for me to get arrested”, and that they can’t be arrested simply “because [their] number was found in the cell phone of someone who was arrested”.
In 1998, the Lebanese parliament passed Law 673. This legislation entitles anyone who is found to be using drugs to enter a treatment programme, rather than be prosecuted, if approved to do so by the government-authorised Addictions Committee. The committee, however, was not established until 2013.
Sandy Mteirek, Skoun’s advocacy coordinator, asserts that the government’s severe delay in creating the committee has caused untold harm to people who use drugs in Lebanon.
“Without a functioning committee for 15 years”, Mteirek told TalkingDrugs, “those arrested were not only denied treatment but incarcerated, given a criminal record further marginalising them, and trapping them in a cycle of addiction”.
Even after the committee was established, the implementation of punitive policies has continued.
According to Articles 127 and 130 of Law 673, anyone found in possession of an illegal drug for personal use will face at least two months imprisonment, and a fine of at least 1 million LBP ($660 USD), with certain exceptions.
If someone is offered treatment and accepts it, then prosecution should not occur. Additionally, the law dictates, if a person is possessing illegal drugs that are not deemed to be "high-risk", they may be pardoned if they are a minor, “not a recidivist, or if [they] undertake not to repeat the offence and submit to treatment or treatment measures imposed by the court”.
However, these provisions have proved insufficient in preventing the criminalisation of people who use drugs, particularly young people.
“In the past two years, over 5,000 people were arrested and prosecuted [for] drug use”, Mteirek said, citing statistics from the Lebanese drugs bureau, “Over 50 per cent of these arrests were people aged [between] 18 and 30”.
Progress has been hampered by the contemporary state of disarray in Lebanese politics.
Without any candidate gaining a sufficient majority in the country's 2014 presidential election, there has not been a working government for two and a half years. The country, one of the world’s most densely populated, is also struggling with the regional instability fuelled by the refugee crisis, as well as the security threat posed by its neighbours: Syria and Israel.
Drug policy reform is, expectedly, not being prioritised.
This disregard is perpetuating the implementation of prohibitionist drug policies, in spite of Law 673. It has also led to the hindering of work that organisations like Skoun undertake.
“[There is a] lack of national and regional commitment to harm reduction, [which] is evident in the lack of funding opportunities for harm reduction services” Mteirek claims. “Treatment centres are struggling to continue to deliver their services and receive new people”.
Skoun hopes that their Know Your Rights campaign will reach as many young Lebanese people as possible, and that their clinics will acquire more funding. Without that, many Lebanese people will be left at the mercy of a repressive and unsympathetic drug policy approach.