The tropical paradise of Maldives, an isolated country of islands in the middle of the Indian ocean lives off its natural beauty. But behind the waving coconut palms and turquoise beaches there lurks an unfolding ugliness. The youth here have turned from the loveliness of life to the deadly addiction that threatens this society.

Nearly half the youth is into hard drugs. Drug addictions touch nearly every family. It has become a big concern for the new government. Young people who were caught experimenting were thrown in jail where segregation was non-existent, most of them returned as hardened criminals or ended up becoming addicted. Drug addiction is considered to be a brain disease. Prolonged abuses of drugs have been shown to alter gene expression and brain circuitry, which in turn affect human behavior. Once addiction develops, these brain changes interfere with an individual’s ability to make voluntary decisions, leading to compulsive drug craving, seeking, and use.

Scenes from the drug operation in Addu

The country now has in effect a modern piece of legislation to tackle the issue of drugs. National Drug Agency (NDA) – a government agency responsible for the implementation of policies relating to the legislation was established under the Drug Law (17/2011). While its work is overseen by the National Drug Control Council established under the new Drug Law, NDA is managed by a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) who reports to a ten-member Advisory Board appointed by the President.

Poster from the Wake Up campaign launched in 2007

The ‘Wake Up’ drug abuse-prevention campaign – launched here in 2007 by the National Narcotics Bureau, Journey and UNICEF – had also shown positive results in reaching young people before they become addicts. Journey NGO is a Maldives-based non-governmental organization (NGO) that focuses on the use of drugs and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and promoting tolerance. Journey NGO is a unique organization to make the people aware of the fact that, in the case of drug users "Recovery is Possible" and to change the social belief or social stigma 'Once an Addict always an Addict'.

Police confiscate seized narcotics/ Photo: Police

An amendment brought to the Drugs Act in 2015 enabled the establishment of service centers where all rehabilitation services are provided. It also sanctions the privatization of rehabilitation centers.

Recently a detox camp “Heyhan Vehi” was organized by the NDA with the association of NGOs Journey, SAFE and Handstogether. It was a one-month camp that was mainly managed by the recovering addicts of the Maldives. This camp helped 40 addicts to become clean and get back into society.

However, the NGOs who have been fighting for the rights of addicts have been raising their voices against NDA due to it not implementing the drug act 17/2011. If you look all over the country you can see that there is only one detoxification center that is situated in Himmafushi and a halfway house in Hulhumale.

President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih/ Photo: President's Office

Earlier this month, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih had shifted the functions and operations of the National Drug Agency (NDA), previously overseen under the mandate of the Ministry of Gender, Family and Social Services to the Ministry of Health.

This is a silver lining for those who are tirelessly fighting for the rights of addicts in the Maldives as drug addiction is a brain disease by shifting NDA under the mandate of the Ministry of Health and to breaking the stigma and approaching the issue as a disease concept.

It is the hope of all the NGOs that fight for the rights of the addicts that this change will make a difference and that treatment for those addicts in line for years would be provided with methadone and buprenorphine treatment as well as by building more detox centers, rehabilitation centers, half-way houses. We need to work as a team to overcome this big obstacle that threatens our younger generation and social development in the country.