Evolving Treatment of Drug Users in the UAE

An examination of the current status of drug users in the UAE and changing legal and rehabilitative options.

Nov 11, 2017

drug Illustration by Mahgul Farooqui


The United Arab Emirates has a zero-tolerance policy for recreational use of drugs. Under Federal Law Number 14, “the procurement, import, export, manufacture, extraction, separation, production, possession, acquisition and abuse of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances indicated in Schedules 3, 5, 6, 7 and 8, as well as all the other types of activities and acts in connection therewith shall be prohibited.” Exceptions to this involve use of these controlled substances for medical or scientific use, and require a decision by the Council of Ministers, one of whom must be a Minister of the Interior, in a process initiated by the Minister of Health.

The UAE’s drug control strategy focuses on prevention, favors education about the dangers of drug abuse and relies on strong family and societal ties to dissuade drug use. On June 26, 2017 — International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking — the Abu Dhabi Police led an initiative called “Be with your children, and they will be good.” Furthermore, the country’s Fawasel drug education campaign, led by the National Rehabilitation Centre, aims to educate youth about drug addiction and provide schools with tools to address cases of substance abuse.

Despite Legal and Preventative Measures, Drug Abuse on the Rise

There were 721 cases involving the consumption of drugs between Oct. and Sept. 2016, according to Ali Al Dhaheri, head of the Judicial Inspection Department at Abu Dhabi Judicial Department. Between Oct. 2016 and Sept. 2017, this number rose to 925.

In July 2017, Abu Dhabi police arrested a man in possession of three kilograms of heroin who was suspected of dealing the drug within the country. That same month, five men and three women were arrested for the possession of 500 grams of unspecified crystal drugs. They were suspected of planning to sell the drug and “promoting the consumption of crystal drugs amongst youngsters, particularly during parties,” said a statement by the Abu Dhabi police.

When the UAE’s drug laws are violated, the country’s police force has departments specifically designated to deal with the infraction. The country’s Anti-Narcotics department also has an electronic drug control patrol team which monitors social media for activities promoting or peddling illicit drugs. It has shut down 13 accounts in Ajman as well as 22 accounts in Ras al-Khaimah created for these purposes.

“My life turned upside down. I left my job in the Armed Forces, and then lost my family, friends and future. I was completely lost,” tells the story of one recovering addict before treatment on the National Rehabilitation Centre’s website. Khalifa is the only name listed for the patient.

A Shift Toward Treatment

In Oct. 2016, President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan downgraded the penalty for the use of illicit drugs from a felony with a four-year minimum sentence to a misdemeanor with a two-year minimum sentence. For first-time offenders, less punitive options were added: offenders can be sent for treatment without a court case, following advice from police and prosecutors as well as permission from the Attorney General. Alternatively, they can be fined a maximum of 10,000 AED or ordered to complete community service. Following the legal change, 22 Emirati convicts had their drug sentences reviewed, and for five such individuals the jail sentences were reduced to two years. The 17 remaining Emirati convicts had their jail terms replaced by 10,000 AED fines.

Beyond policing, the country has embraced treatment and rehabilitation as the best way to free addicts and society from addiction. As such, the Abu Dhabi government aims to provide, “assistance to those suffering from drug addiction, while protecting their privacy.”

The centerpiece of the country’s treatment initiatives is the National Rehabilitation Centre, which offers medical treatment and rehabilitation services to those suffering from addiction to alcohol or other drugs. The center’s creation was initiated in 2002 by Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan and its current capacity is 169 atients. Through its inpatient and outpatient programs, the center has programs specialized to treat the needs of different populations such as youth and women.

Treatment is difficult for the expatriate population to access. The NRC only began accepting expats for treatment in Jan. 2017. Furthermore, treatment at the NRC remains expensive for non-nationals and for those made to go to the NRC by judicial order. For voluntary admits, a four week treatment costs 120,000 AED and for involuntary admits, a six week stay costs 230,000 AED.

Looking Forward: Expanding Access to Treatment

Erada Rehabilitation and Treatment Centre, the first drug rehabilitation center in Dubai, opened in Jan. 2017 and serves both locals and expatriates. A dedicated women’s rehabilitation clinic is set to open in Dubai to complement the work of the Erada Centre, which currently treats 80 male addicts. Dr Hamad Al Ghaferi, Director General of the NRC, shared the potential for health insurance to cover addiction treatment in the future. saying that, “[they] are working on amending the health insurance law so that it includes treatment of drug addiction.”

According to Dr Ahmad El Kashef, Head of Research at the NRC, the centre is pushing to make naloxone— which can reverse opioid overdose more widely available around the UAE. The medication is currently available in hospitals, ambulances and at the NRC, but only in its injectable form. Naloxone is also manufactured as a nasal spray and has no potential for abuse, making it helpful to have on hand in the homes of recovering opiate addicts. Recommendations to expand naloxone availability have been made to the government and currently await approval.

Following the U.S. American Model

Additionally, the UAE is considering adding Drug Courts modeled after those of the United States to handle drug-related cases as early as next year.
Of this change, Dr Al Ghaferi said: “The idea is that specialised experts will be involved in the trials. The judge would have a full understanding of the treatment process and he would follow up with its progress, and prosecutors as well”.

Dr Al Ghaferi cited the example of U.S. drug courts in alternative sentencing. “We saw this in LA. The judge asks the patient (defendant) about his treatment, and he issues an order that would guarantee they won’t relapse during the trial period,” he said.

Ideally, adding drug courts will lead to increasingly effective rehabilitation and less recidivism by streamlining the judicial and treatment processes. Prosecutors would have extensive knowledge of the treatment and rehabilitation processes and the options available to defendants beyond jail time. Such options include users undergoing treatment outside of a treatment center and appearing in front of a judge following treatment. Not jailing users and addicts would reduce costs associated with their care and treatment. Al Dhaheri also recognizes that treating drug users and addicts as patients rather than criminals “has become a social and humanitarian issue.”

Drug courts across the 50 States of the U.S., the District of Columbia, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam, and in nearly 90 Tribal locations, have been effective in cutting costs associated with criminal justice and reducing recidivism among offenders. However, the system is not perfect. Criticisms of U.S. drug courts include inconsistencies in treatment and sentencing, as judges are given a large measure of freedom in sentencing or diversion decisions. Additionally, drug courts often mandate treatment for offenders at a rate higher than the availability of treatment resources, such as beds at detoxification or rehabilitation facilities. Finally, a 2010 survey of U.S. drug courts found that only 56 percent of such courts provided Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) for opioid addiction, which is known to be effective in reducing heroin and prescription opioid abuse as well as criminal behavior, HIV risk behaviors and overdose deaths associated to opioid use. Local attitudes toward different sentencing and treatment options, such as MAT, are often the determining factor in verdicts.

The UAE is likely to face some of the same challenges, particularly standardizing sentences and the balance between sentencing rates and availability of treatment, as it ramps up its response to the country’s growing drug problem.

Hannah Taylor is a Managing Editor. Email her at [email protected]

Gazelle Logo