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Qatar’s Commitment to Punishment at Odds With Treatment Investments

Hosting the 2022 World Cup has put Qatar in the global spotlight, causing a substantial international uproar about their treatment of migrant workers, the LGBTQ+ community, freedom of speech, and women's rights. While their human rights records were extensively analysed throughout the tournament, their approach to drug control has not had the same level of scrutiny.

The Gulf state has recently invested in state-of-the-art drug treatment facilities, whilst continuing to uphold punitive drug laws in their pursuit of a society "free from drugs”. While their approach to dealing with drug-related harms has developed, their continued commitment to punishment and mandated treatment is preoccupying, and must change if they are to improve the lives of people who use drugs.


Punitive rhetoric and drug treatment investments

Qatar’s financial success and rapid development facilitated huge investments in their healthcare system. The strategic direction of these investments were outlined in the “The Qatar National Vision 2030” (QNV) document, produced in 2008. It highlights the central importance of a healthcare system of “world-class standards” needed to “meet the needs of existing and future generations”, with the promise that “all health services will be accessible to the entire population”.

On drug harms, the Qatari Ministry of Development Planning and Statistics (MDPS), who monitor the country’s progress in reference to its national vision, insist that:

“Qatar has moved away from treating drug addiction merely as a criminal matter and is recognising it as a health and social challenge and a human rights issue. The right to health includes the right to obtain health services without fear of punishment."

These changes that the Ministry refer to include the establishment of a Permanent Committee for Addiction Treatment, which has overseen the construction of the Naufar Centre, an addiction treatment facility.

The Emiri Decree which determines the Naufar’s mandate claims it will provide “preventive and curative health care for individuals facing addiction and substance use disorders” and “…assist[s] people with behavioural disorders [to] achieve and sustain the quality of life they aspire to, in a healing environment which is guided by evidence-based practices.” 

The Attorney General of Qatar, Dr. Ali bin Fettais Al-Marri, has also advocated for a perspective shift for the treatment of those suffering from addiction. In the press conference for the centre’s opening, he stated that “an addict must not be treated as a criminal. Instead, addicts should be assisted.” However, he also qualified that people who use drugs should still be punished for breaking the law, but only that they should also receive treatment.

While these investments in drug treatment facilities should be celebrated, the pejorative language around people who use drugs, and the maintenance of criminal punishments around drug use and treatment, show there is still a long way to go.

The Naufar Centre’s work only satisfies very few conditions of Harm Reduction International’s (HRI) harm reduction principles: indeed, Qatar shows a respect for evidence, and perhaps an understanding of the barriers that people who use drugs face when dealt through the criminal justice system. But the harm reduction support seems to end there. There are no publicly accepted needle and syringe programmes, opioid agonist treatment, naloxone provision, or prison-based harm-reduction support interventions. These are all tried and tested health-based interventions that help reduce drug-related harms, with the majority only working if there is a legal environment that allows for their implementation. This is seemingly not the case with Qatar.


Continued endorsement of punishment 

While Dr. Al-Marri has been clear on Qatar’s commitment to a health-based approach to addiction, the links with the criminal justice system still remain. The Naufar Centre’s inauguration was followed by a signing ceremony of cooperation between the treatment facility and the Public Prosecution service, where Dr Al-Marri explained that not only addiction but drug use are conditions that must be studied to prevent and be rehabilitated.

This practice of “mandated treatment” as an alternative to imprisonment is in accordance with the 1987 "Control and Regulation of Narcotic Drugs and Dangerous Psychotropic Substances”, which remains as a key guiding document for Qatar’s drug policy. On top of the life-changing criminal and economic applied to those caught using drugs (seen in the table below), it is possible to be further sentenced to compulsory treatment.

  Consumption of drugs Possession of drugs (for personal use)
Fine (Qatari Riyals) 50,000 to 100,000 10,000 to 20,000
Fine (US Dollars) 13,700 to 27,500 2,700 to 5,500
Prison sentencing 2 to 5 years 1 to 3 years

Such practices infringe upon the UN’s understanding of human rights, which state that “drug treatment should always be voluntary, based on informed consent, and left exclusively to health professionals.”

Expressing that any effort to coerce or force people into treatment represents an “…unacceptable infringement on the right to choose one’s treatment freely…”. The MDPS’ claim that Qatar provides “health services without fear of punishment” is clearly unfounded, as compulsory treatment is still integrated within punitive measures, and punishment for drug use or possession is still meted despite all health-based investments. The mixed messaging around drug addiction, treatment and punishment creates a murky image of a health system that seems progressive on the surface, when in fact a punitive structure for drug use and treatment is still practiced.


Citizens-only and punishment-based treatment

Qatar’s failure to adopt harm reduction strategies in treatment extend beyond maintaining criminal sanctions.

There is currently no state-funded rehabilitation centre for non-Qatari citizens, directly opposing HRI’s principled commitment to ensuring “nobody is excluded from the health and social services they may need because of their drug use, their race, their gender, their gender identity, their sexual orientation, their choice of work, or their economic status”. Considering that 89% of the population are expatriates, a considerable portion of the population will not be eligible for treatment if needed, which even undermines the QNV 2030 goal of ensure health services are universally accessible.

Additionally, in a nationwide study on how emergency departments treat substance misuse in Qatar, they found that less than 1% of the 1495 cases were referred to psychiatric services, with no one being offered any other form of rehabilitative services. This is despite, 61 instances of ‘Substance induced behavioural issues', 29 of ‘Chronic use consequences’, and 23 of ‘self-harm’, amongst other circumstances that could warrant additional support. Part of this could be because no substance abuse rehabilitation centre actually offers emergency services.


Qatar’s Incomplete commitment to harm reduction

While Qatar is on paper committed to a “human rights perspective” for drug policy, it does not seem interested in making the necessary changes to make this a practiced reality. There are still too many unaddressed issues that the Gulf nation must still address. This includes expanding treatment access to non-nationals, and decoupling drug treatment from a punitive model for drug use.

Qatar continues to use coercive treatment, stigmatising language, and, as uncovered by the UN, corporal punishment. These serious problems continue to limit the number of people accessing essential health services before they are critically needed.

If they are going to fulfil their "National Vision 2030” and truly adopt a “human rights based approach” to drug harm, these concerns must be addressed.

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