Experts: Prevention key to addressing drug abuse.
BEIRUT: Often cited by authorities and experts as the most effective defense against abuse and addiction among adolescents, methods of prevention are underfunded in Lebanon despite the rise in drug use among youths.
"Experts suggest that when tackling substance use among adolescents primary prevention is the best choice," read an assessment released in 2013 by Sagesse Universityin coordination with World Vision and Australian AID. "The earlier prevention is introduced into adolescents' lives, the better chance they would have to stay away from substance use and other risky behaviors."
Substance abuse prevention provides youth with the proper education and skills to prevent a future drug problem.
While documented figures and research on substance abuse in Lebanon are scarce, in 2012 the Social Affairs Ministry recognized 24,000 young Lebanese as drug addicts in need of treatment.
In Lebanon, fighting the war on drugs is divvied up, with the Social Affairs, Education and Interior ministries sharing sometimes overlapping responsibilities.
Substance abuse prevention is spearheaded by the National Program for the Prevention of Addiction under the authority of the Social Affairs Ministry, and despite their best efforts, authorities say not enough is being done to counter drug use.
"We have a very limited budget," said Toufic Agha, the NPPA's director. "We're a very poor program within the ministry, and we only have four employees."
The NPPA must compete for funding within the Social Affairs Ministry budget, which is stretched by the ministry's other responsibilities, which include the handicapped, poor, and, Lebanon's most severe financial strain, refugees.
"There are a host of other situations that are extremely costly," Agha said.
During a 30-year stint living in Canada, Agha volunteered at a center for drug addicts where he was exposed to progressive ways of thwarting drug abuse. Upon returning to his native Lebanon, Agha noticed that the country's youths had their "light bulbs switched off" and needed to learn certain skills like "knowing how not to give up" and self-belief.
After taking over as director, Agha approached the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to fund an initiative to train social workers around the country, a program he said was a success. Still, Agha insists that more needs to be done.
Non-governmental organizations often partner with the NPPA to educate youths about drugs, considering the curriculum is not found in Lebanese schools. But social workers say greater coordination is needed to fight this growing and underfunded problem that has penetrated all economic and social classes.
Both the rich and poor are exposed to harmful substances, including alcohol, cigarettes, and nargileh, which can be detrimental to health if abused.
Attempts to remove these drugs from daily life are near impossible due to their accessibility.
"The first line of defense is taking the right decisions," said Ahmad Jaber, communication and media director of Mentor Arabia, a Beirut-based NGO that works on substance abuse prevention throughout the Middle East.
"Prevention is important because no one can make drugs disappear. If you arrest 100 dealers a day another one will pop up," Jaber said.
With drugs easily available and in many different forms, both legal and illegal, education becomes the strongest opponent to taking the first step down the road to addiction.
"People take drugs to forget misery and often at an early age due to lack of education," Jaber said. "We try to prevent them from falling into those traps."
Agha says that society must change how it views drug abuse, and abusers, before the problem can be effectively addressed.
"The understanding and people's mentality has to change. Drug users are our sons, brothers, sisters, and we need to help them instead of stigmatizing them. There's a group of people who really need quality help, those who are hardcore addicts," Agha said, adding that this group represented a small segment of society.
Most important, however, the media needs to be better educated on the issue of drug prevention, according to both Agha and Jaber.
"I recently watched someone on a very progressive media outlet who was angry because the organization manager he was interviewing fosters needle exchange," Agha said. "The host thought it was encouraging people to use drugs and said such things should be dealt with by an iron fist."
"People are going to use drugs no matter what. Iran and Pakistan pass out needles so the media should be informed," he added.
But Jaber wasn't incredibly optimistic about any drastic improvements in the sector, primarily due to the media not properly covering the issue of prevention.
"It's just not a sexy topic," he said. "Reporters prefer stories on drug addicts and recovering drug addicts. It's sexier and makes a better story."
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