It’s no secret that Guyana has a drug problem. The creativity and growing scope of its drug operations has found its way into local and international entertainment. Although there are occasional drug busts, the government’s ongoing war on drugs has been failing badly. This is not due in large part to the links many government and private sectors have with the drug trade. But the focus today is not necessarily on the role of government in the narco-state, but rather on those who are battling addiction to the substances that make their way in and out of our banks.
Given the stigma attached to drug dependence, there is usually little sympathy for those who find themselves battling addiction to legal and illegal substances. A lot of this is about how addiction continues to be framed as a personal failure rather than the debilitating disease it is. There is little support provided for the continuing notion that people can find themselves out of addiction, for those who are struggling with substance abuse. This lack of support, of course, does nothing but extend and encourage substance use disorders, as people do not have the resources available to overcome their addiction.
There is a real fear in seeking help from family and peers given the belief that they will feel ashamed or want to distance themselves from drug users. Unfortunately, many of these fears can often come to fruition as there remains a serious misunderstanding of addiction and many do not see past the drug addictive image that traditional beliefs and the mainstream media sold to them.
The way in which the media and society in general are addicted to that bondage has done no favors with the way addicts continue to be seen and treated. What this means is people who secretly try to combat their addiction, which can work in rare cases, but too often it is a recipe for disaster. If substance users come from lower socio-economic backgrounds or are considered part of ethnic minority groups, they may be reluctant to seek support as they see addiction as adding another layer of stigma to its already marginalized position.
However, drug addiction does not occur in a vacuum; it thrives in a space that is violent, impoverished and oppressive. It doesn’t help that we in Guyana have a culture that promotes substance overuse. The most abused and readily available is alcohol. Alcohol addiction is often under-discussed as many consider it harmless despite the devastation it continues to inflict on whole communities. But with alcohol making a significant contribution to the country’s Gross Domestic Product, it is questionable whether any serious efforts to tackle alcoholism will ever happen.
Many who start using substances whether they are hard drugs, party drugs or depression such as alcohol do so in an attempt to cope with the effects of trauma they have experienced or witnessed. That trauma can of course be social, physical, mental and economic. Efforts to target addiction must therefore ensure that focus is not only placed on supportive mechanisms for those with substance abuse disorders, but also ensuring corrective action to the systemic issues that promote and remain addicted to drugs.
However, there is a very Puritan stance towards those who are considered drug addicts. The remaining response is incarceration. Although there have been some attempts through the drug treatment court, where accused and convicted drug users can choose between community service and drug treatment programs, it would be good to know the success they have been having with this. The reality is that the drug treatment programs available in places like the Salvation Army and the Phoenix Recovery project are out of touch with best practices for treating those with addiction. This often results in many people passing through these programs without gaining the knowledge and skills they need to stay sober.
Increasing the number of trained personnel in the public health and legal system are good steps to take in putting in place more supportive mechanisms to tackle addiction. Ultimately, however, renewed efforts are needed to ensure that the systemic issues of social, political and economic violence are addressed holistically.