For decades Mauritius has been a popular destination for traffickers of traditional drugs such as heroin and cannabis. Despite the hefty prison sentences the offence carries on the island, there are daily media reports on drug seizures and arrests of traffickers still trying to smuggle substances.
Recently though the island has seen a rise in synthetic drugs. Each year since 2015, the number of people arrested in relation to synthetic drugs has doubled, with 1 059 in 2018. Furthermore, a significant increase in in-patient cases of drug abuse has been recorded at public health institutions, with the latest figures indicating that 44% of drug abuse cases in 2017 were related to new psychoactive substances (NPS).
The ENACT Organised Crime Index for Africa ranks Mauritius number one in the synthetic drug trade in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region and in the top 10 on the continent.
Synthetic drugs are manufactured in laboratories using chemicals to mimic other traditional narcotics or hallucinogens such as marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, LSD, amphetamine-type stimulants and even morphine. NPS are the predominant form of synthetic drugs used in Mauritius. Based on seizure data, the most common types of NPS found on the island are synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones.
Understanding the history of drugs in the country is key to contextualising the problem. Substance abuse in Mauritius dates back to the 1970s when heroin was first introduced on the island. Since then, the problem has escalated to alarming levels. The Word Drug Report in 2010 revealed that Mauritius had the highest prevalence of opioid use in Africa.
Since then, the government has struggled to contain the problem despite adopting a more holistic public health stance on drug abuse by moving away from the traditional criminal justice ‘war on drugs’ approach. It has introduced various initiatives and programmes to curb drug abuse, including harm-reduction strategies in national policy documents, needle and syringe exchange programmes, opioid substitution treatment and drug awareness programmes.
The change in approach has shown some success especially regarding a reduction in cannabis and traditional opioid use such as heroin. But the magnitude of the NPS challenge is escalating and presenting a burden on both the law enforcement and public health systems.
Former attorney-general and justice minister Rama Valayden told media that ‘there is no way to win the fight against synthetic drugs’, noting that drug producers were replacing compounds in the drug faster than law enforcement could detect them.
The drugs can be obtained in various forms. The chemicals used for the production of drugs can be imported via the internet either in powder or liquid form, and it is estimated that about 95% of those ingredients are imported from China. Unlike heroin or cocaine, NPS can be produced at home, with people using products such as pesticides, rubber, rat poison and detergents, among others.
This creates a change in the dynamics of the traditional drug trafficking system. There’s little reliance on the traditional drug hierarchical structure of a producer/supplier at the top, transportation of the narcotic into the country, then street-level dealing. In this way, the NPS drug systems have led to a form of ‘democratisation’ of the drug economy – it is open to anyone.
Despite the growing drug challenge, the government has made some strides in addressing the drug problem. A commission of inquiry was established in 2015 to ‘inquire into, and report on, all aspects of drug trafficking in Mauritius’. One of the tasks of the inquiry was to look into the availability of new types of drugs, including synthetic and designer drugs.
The commission report, released in 2018, made over 400 recommendations to government, who has been implementing some and evaluating others. One of the recommendations implemented includes the establishment of the National Drug Observatory, whose main objectives are to monitor illicit drug use, drug abuse and drug trafficking in the country.
In 2019 the government launched the comprehensive National Drug Control Master Plan 2019-2023 based on four pillars: supply reduction, demand reduction, harm reduction and a coordination mechanism relating to legislation, implementation framework, monitoring and evaluation, and strategic information. The plan emphasises three crucial aspects that underpin the plan and its implementation. These are capacity building, respect and observance of human rights, and gender mainstreaming.
The plan, developed through consultative engagements with non-governmental organisations, has practical objectives and clearly defined outputs. But will it help curb the synthetic drug problem?
The success of a policy is based on its implementation rather than its content. It is therefore important that its implementation plan is achievable, practical and relevant to the current situation. During its implementation, some of the key aspects to take into consideration include the willingness of younger people to experiment with new drugs and the low cost of manufacturing of these drugs.
There are some key aspects to implement for the short term. In terms of legislation, government could use existing drug laws or adapt them to make them more responsive, coupled with other forms of legislation, to create more comprehensive approaches. An option could be to enact legislation specifically for new psychoactive substances focusing on the import, export and sale of any addictive or harmful psychoactive substance as exemplified by Ireland’s Psychoactive Substance Act of 2010.
Developing an early warning system to monitor NPS and other synthetic drugs within the Mauritius National Drug Observatory would provide an understanding of the NPS market and it characteristics. This information could be used to inform policies and more appropriate responses to the problem.
There’s a need to incorporate information on NPS in drug prevention and awareness programmes. These programmes could include raising awareness on the risks of NPS and devising strategies to reduce the harmful consumption of NPS.
Synthetic drugs present a new era for the drug market in Mauritius. The low price and availability of the ingredients coupled with greater reach to buyers through advanced technology enable traffickers to remain a step ahead of law enforcement. Unless this pattern changes, traffickers will have the upper hand and synthetic drugs could become much more prevalent on the island.
Richard Chelin, Researcher, ENACT project, ISS