Should drug addicts be imprisoned?


A drug addict died in a clash at the Kandakadu Rehabilitation Centre. According to Police, 705 drug addicts had escaped following the commotion. The escapees were arrested for breaking the rules of the rehabilitation centre and destroying property. They were moved to various prisons. This begs the question, how could a person die and several others escape when the military is running the facility?

The Government said based on the post-mortem report, the Kandakadu inmate had been attacked with blunt weapons and succumbed to his injuries.

It’s not the first time that Sri Lanka’s detained drug addicts have experienced repression, harassment, and physical harm.

In contrast to the West, where drug addicts receive the same care as any other patient admitted to the ward and are treated holistically, drug addicts are an impoverished community in Sri Lanka.

Drug users lack self-control over their emotions and desires. All of that would be due to a lack of more drugs, and if they don’t get any, they may steal money and gold from their parents, sisters, or other loved ones without guilt to satisfy their cravings.

Dopamine levels in the brain lure towards addiction

Scientifically, it is proven most addictive substances flood the brain with dopamine. Drug addicts and alcoholics alike have extremely low dopamine levels to begin with. Drugs, alcohol, and even sugar increase dopamine levels in humans by blocking the dopamine transporter, thereby stopping the brain from reabsorbing the dopamine. Having too much dopamine — or too much dopamine concentrated in some parts of the brain and not enough in other parts — is linked to being more competitive, aggressive, and having poor impulse control. It can lead to conditions that include ADHD, binge eating, addiction, and gambling. Larger amounts of dopamine make people feel good, and this good feeling motivates people to repeat the behaviour that triggered the good feeling. In this way, dopamine is an important part of survival.

An ex-drug user would first express shame for everything done to family, friends, and the community. This shows that drug addicts need help just like any other patients and they are neither criminals nor neglected individuals.

However, a string of past incidents in Sri Lanka has demonstrated that drug addicts have been stigmatised as criminals, given a more wary attitude toward society, and ultimately turned out to be criminals.

Therapy programmes at Kandakadu Rehab Centre

Kandakadu Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre, previously known as the Kandakadu Drug Rehabilitation Centre, is a rehabilitation centre located in Welikanda, Polonnaruwa District, North Central Province. It is presently operated by the Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation under the Ministry of Justice. The rehabilitation centre is presently used to treat drug addicts and Covid-19 patients, along with Senapura Rehabilitation Centre in Welikanda.

According to 2011 statistics, those imprisoned for drug addiction stands at 10,568, and of this figure 6,165 are repeat offenders, which is 58.4 per cent. Those convicted of drug addiction and related offences stands at 66 per cent. These figures clearly indicate that incarceration has had no positive or corrective effect on these offenders, and assist them in becoming productive citizens of the country.

According to the National Plan for a Drug-Free Society: “There is a National Plan for a Drug-Free Society, 55 per cent Total Prison Population Drug users/Peddlers, Established Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre, Admission on Court orders, Through Prison Department, Profiling and Enrolling by Age, Rehabilitation Towards Human Capital Development, After care process to ensure Socio-Economic and Welfare Matters.” This is mentioned on their official website.

The Kandakadu Rehabilitation Centre is run by none other than Retired Major General Darshana Hettiarachchi, who is loved by many.

Speaking to Ceylon Today, he said a drug addict, in the first two months of withdrawal behaves violently and there is no dose of drugs given to them at all. They are given the agri-therapy to keep them active in the garden to come over the thoughts of drugs. “I vehemently disapprove assaulting or killing drug addicts. That cannot be allowed and the counsellors are given good training and meditation programmes to handle them.”

He believes that as humans, some err, and that’s what had happened on that day. “It’s the first case of a death in the camp and we have taken all measures to see that it does not recur,” he said.

“When the clash took place and those inmates were escaping, no one assaulted them. They had to basically watch them go, in fear that it may trigger a continuous clash. The inmates escaped though fences and the main entrance,” he added.

But he admitted sometimes they need to be tough, as some drug addicts are very aggressive. “We cannot pat them on the back and make them listen to you. It’s not an easy job.”

Five military personnel were detained following the death of the 36-year-old Mattakuliya resident. Maj. Gen. Hettiarachchi was unable to provide specifics of the scene, because the Court case is ongoing. “I rushed to Kandakadu and tried to understand what had gone wrong,” he said.

He kept pointing out how difficult it can be to rehabilitate drug addicts, even the most severe ones. Even the elite bring their loved ones here. He claims that the centre has been in operation since 2013. The LTTE prisoners who were captured were rehabilitated there before being released.

He emphasised that their violent behaviour needs to be handled with care and concern. They throw rocks and other objects around and attempt to kill themselves or others. Some also attempt to flee. He claimed that drugs were to blame for their actions, not what a regular person would do.

He added that there is a weekly psychiatric visit at Kandakadu, which is situated on 73 acres of land, and that the counsellors receive six months of training from the National Dangerous Drugs Control Board (NDDCB). Counsellors are trained by the NDDCB for a month on how to deal with drug addicts. Additionally, they receive meditation. There are presently 997 drug addicts in need of rehabilitation, and 30 counsellors are all active-duty military personnel. There are eight specialists who are civilians. Many of them are graduates, and some of them have Master’s Degrees. Music and drama are also used to treat drug addicts.

A drug addict inmate could only be housed in the rehabilitation facility for a total of 12 months, spending six months at Kandakadu and six months at another facility. Some come back after being arrested by the Police for criminal activity, according to Hettiarachchi. However, the majority of them return to their homes after completing a 12-month rehabilitation programme.

No treatment system in place

However, a well-known Consultant Psychiatrist, Dr. Ranil Abeysinghe, the former President of the College of Psychiatrists, said drug addicts are patients whose drug addictions require lifelong treatment and attention.

“Addiction can be treated mainly by the use of medicines, but in Sri Lanka there is no availability of such drugs, nor is there a psychiatric unit in the government hospitals, except in Kandy.”

“The entire system of medication for drug addicts is not in place in Sri Lanka,” he said. He added that the World Health Organization, the American Psychiatric Association, and the US Food and Drug Administration would only advocate for medications. “It is very sad how these helpless drug addicts die at the hands of military personnel.” He expressed grave concern that they are being treated as inmates in Police and Army camps.

Dr. Abeysinghe said no one would be sent to the military or Police for treatment. “In terms of drug addict discipline, it is never used. Further, drug addiction is a disease that must be treated humanely with proper medication rather than discipline.”

“Drug addicts, even while in camp, should be monitored by hospitals and divided into small groups under the supervision of a psychiatrist assigned to a hospital,” he suggested.

He also mentions that a 12-month treatment will return them to the camp. Given the lack of facilities in Sri Lanka, it is a lifelong process for many.

He added that depressed youth become addicts and have suicidal thoughts, which is why they seek heroin and other substances. And proper withdrawal medications should be prescribed, with no other options to begin with, he added.

“20 years ago, Sri Lanka had approximately 50,000 drug addicts, and today there are over 200,000 of them suffering from addiction and without a proper treatment centre attached to the State hospital,” the doctor lamented.

Amnesty International urged the Sri Lankan Government, in response to the death of a drug addict at the Kandakadu Camp, to launch an impartial investigation into the incidents at the Kandakadu Rehabilitation Centre and to act quickly to release all individuals who are being held there against their will.

Maj. Gen. Hettiarachchi believes they shouldn’t be kept in prisons, but as the Court case is ongoing, he will wait to learn about the addicts’ release and the next course of action.

The worst crime committed against drug addicts would be to arrest them and put them in jail. The primary sources of heroin supply are at prisons and this is an open secret. Those drug addicts who were finally going to get rehabilitated would also be hardcore criminals. The doctor said, “This is the society we live in.”

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan


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