With Jordan’s new drug law amendment, it’s time to reflect

210907 Lina Shannak
A Parliamentary session in which lawmakers discuss an amendment to the Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances Law, on September 1, 2021. MPs approved the bill which would drop criminal intent for first-time drug offenses. (Photo: Jordan News)
The Lower House of Parliament passed a controversial amendment to the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Law last week, leading to mixed reactions among the public and subject matter experts.اضافة اعلان

According to the latest amendment, abusing, smuggling, importing, exporting, purchasing, delivering, transporting, producing, manufacturing, storing, or cultivating narcotics and psychotropic substances, or plants from which narcotics or psychotropic substances are produced for the purpose of abuse will no longer be entered into the criminal record of offenders if it is their first offence.

For the purposes of this article, I will solely focus on whether a first-time drug offence should warrant a criminal record. In the last few days, many experts, who mostly come from security backgrounds, have publicly opposed this stance, concerned that not entering first-time drug offences into people’s criminal records will further encourage them to abuse drugs.

In the last few years, residents of many areas in Amman and Jordan at large, where drug abuse became an alarming practice, launched campaigns, and called on authorities to implement stricter measures and save their young people from addiction. Official figures show that the number of drug-related cases rose from 2,041 in 2005 to 20,055 cases in 2020.

On the other hand, proponents of the amendment argue that it aims to give people a chance to lead normal lives and reintegrate into society. When reflecting on both arguments, it becomes obvious that opponents are mostly preoccupied with imposing harsher penalties in a bid to discourage people from abusing drugs or even committing any crime. While their approach wants to “prevent” the crime, it pays little attention to other rehabilitative measures should this crime actually occur.

A recent study conducted by the Ministry of Justice focused on repeat offenders and presented alarming indicators. When asked why they had returned to criminal behavior, 50.4 percent of inmates at Jordan’s reform and rehabilitation centers said there had been no “work opportunities in the labor market for them”, 30.4 percent said that being incarcerated covered their “living expenses” for free, while 47.1 percent said they had felt “rejected by the society” and suffered from “social stigma” after their release.

If we still want to treat drug abusers as “criminals”, we need to ensure that they break out of the cycle after their release by offering them a chance to lead normal decent lives, and the latest amendment may actually be a step in the right direction.

We could still go even further and learn from other countries that treated them as people who needed treatment rather than criminals who had to be prosecuted. In the late 1990s, Portugal had the highest rate of drug-related AIDS cases in the European Union, and the criminalization of drug use was increasingly viewed as part of the problem.

In 2001, Portugal became the first country to decriminalize drug use, and offer the professional support people needed to overcome their addiction. Although opponents of this policy expected it to be counterproductive and lead to a greater problem, figures on the ground showed a different result in less than 10 years. By 2009, the country witnessed a drop in HIV infections and overdoses as a result of this approach.

When asked about the secret of their success, João Goulão, one of the architects of the drugs policy, told the BBC: “We are not a very rich country, but our professional responses are based on human respect and that makes all the difference, you know?”

Perhaps we, in Jordan, have another lesson to learn.

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