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Bhutan Takes Urgent Action to Combat Substance Abuse, Prioritizing Compassion and Treatment

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By Phurpa Wangmo

The resounding call from His Majesty to eradicate the rising threat of behavioral and mental health disorders caused by substance use deserves our utmost commendation. It is a call to action that underscores the importance of safeguarding our citizens from the devastating effects of substance abuse.

The National Drug Task Force (NDTF) has swiftly taken the reins to tackle this critical issue head-on. Drawing inspiration from the National Covid-19 Task Force, the NDTF has been established with a singular focus on confronting substance use-related challenges.

An official from the National Drug Task Force (NDTF) Secretariat stated, “Similar to the National Covid-19 Task Force, we now have a National Drug Task Force dedicated to addressing issues related to substance use.”

In a phased approach, the NDTF will administer drug tests to Professional Driving License (PDL) holders and commercial drivers, ensuring their compliance by notifying them to report to designated drug testing locations designated by the Bhutan Construction and Transport Authority (BCTA) within specific timeframes. However, displaying a compassionate approach, individuals will also be afforded the opportunity to voluntarily confess to drug use, expediting their referral to appropriate treatment interventions without the need for further drug testing.

Collaborating closely with the BCTA, the Royal Bhutan Police will conduct substance use tests on PDL holders and commercial drivers, placing paramount importance on ensuring the safety of all road users. The screening process and timely interventions will gradually extend beyond these sectors to encompass civil servants, corporate employees, private sector workers, armed force personnel, and other relevant stakeholders.

An NDTF official highlighted, “The National response to the substance use issue endeavors to foster a secure, healthy, and resilient community by proactively preventing and minimizing the consequences of substance abuse, improving physical and psychosocial well-being, and promoting productive socioeconomic engagement for all Bhutanese.”

Substance use disorder (SUD), characterized as a chronic relapsing brain disease, demands the same level of care and support as any other chronic illness. SUD is both preventable and treatable, and Bhutan’s proactive approach is geared towards addressing these aspects comprehensively.

The press release states, “To build a safe, healthy, and resilient community, the National Response to the Substance Use Issue is being launched, centered on the commitment to CARE – Compassion, Action, Responsibility, and Empathy, Because we CARE.”

A recently issued press release states, “In our endeavor to build a safe, healthy, and resilient society, the National Response to the Substance Use Issue has been launched, guided by the core principles of CARE – Compassion, Action, Responsibility, and Empathy. We call upon all citizens to lend their unwavering support to this noble initiative, as we strive collectively to build a nation free from the detrimental effects of substance abuse.”

Furthermore, an official emphasized, “Positive cases will receive appropriate treatment services. In terms of legal actions, the Royal Bhutan Police and BCTA will assume responsibility. However, it is worth noting that the law provides opportunities for individuals using substances to undergo treatment voluntarily.”

Under the provisions of the Narcotic Drugs, Psychotropic Substances and Substance Abuse (NDPSSA) Act of Bhutan 2015, the initial offense of substance abuse may result in compulsory treatment and rehabilitation for a minimum of three months in an approved treatment center, with the necessity for treatment or rehabilitation assessed by a designated treatment assessment panel. Counseling for one month may be recommended for cases not requiring extensive treatment.

For subsequent offenses, individuals may face compulsory treatment and rehabilitation for a minimum of six months, with the treatment assessment panel authorized to extend this duration if deemed necessary.

Repeat offenders may be subject to compulsory treatment, rehabilitation, and community service for at least one year in an approved treatment center. The law seeks to balance rehabilitation with punitive measures to deter individuals from engaging in repeat offenses.

Under the provisions of the NDPSSA Act, minors who commit a first-time offense of substance abuse may be referred to institutional-based counseling. Additionally, out-of-school or non-school going minors may be directed to approved treatment centers or drop-in centers for a minimum period of two weeks, where they can receive specialized support and guidance.

For subsequent offenses, the Act mandates compulsory treatment, rehabilitation, and community service as a means to address the recurring issue of substance abuse among minors. The duration of compulsory treatment and rehabilitation will be determined by a designated treatment assessment panel, taking into consideration the severity of the offense and the specific needs of the minor.

Significantly, the NDPSSA Act of Bhutan 2015 includes provisions that offer opportunities for individuals using substances to voluntarily present themselves at approved treatment centers, without the fear of legal consequences. This provision encourages individuals to seek help and support voluntarily, promoting a compassionate approach to combating substance abuse.

Furthermore, the Act stipulates that individuals who have committed an offense solely under section 152 of the Act will not face prosecution or public identification if they voluntarily present themselves at an approved treatment center before being arrested or charged. The Act acknowledges the importance of rehabilitation and successful completion of treatment in breaking the cycle of substance abuse.

These provisions underscore Bhutan’s commitment to addressing substance abuse among minors with a focus on treatment, rehabilitation, and support. By providing access to specialized counseling, treatment centers, and drop-in centers, Bhutan aims to offer a pathway to recovery for young individuals struggling with substance abuse.

As Bhutan continues its efforts to create a safer and healthier society, the implementation of the NDPSSA Act and its provisions for minors serves as a critical step toward building a resilient community free from the harmful effects of substance abuse. By prioritizing treatment, rehabilitation, and support, Bhutan aims to empower its young population to overcome substance abuse and lead productive and fulfilling lives.

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