Human Rights and Public Health Implications of the Law on Narcotics and Psychotropic Substance Use in Uganda

This publication was authored by: Primah Kwagala

Abstract / Summary

Drugs and substance abuse is not one of those peculiar problems you will encounter being addressed by the Ugandan government today. It doesn’t seem to be one of those priority issues to be addressed using the meager resources that the country devotes to the health ministry. Over the past few years however, there’s been a growing concern that the issue of use, trade in and possession of illicit drugs is one that ought to be addressed sooner than later. Advocates for a law to curb drug abuse in Uganda were in 2014 specifically motivated by media reports of Ugandans being killed in China for dealing in illicit drugs1 These reports opened the eyes of many to the gravity of the problem in the Ugandan community. Health experts from ministry of health have been reported (Uganda, 2014) to have quoted that up to 20% of patients admitted in Butabika2 Hospital aged 18 -25 years have had a past life involving drug abuse and that at least 5-10% (MoH, 2015) of Uganda’s population (38million as per UBOS 2014 national Census Preliminary results) are users of alcohol, cannabis, Khat, aviation fuel, tobacco, amphetamine, pethidine to mention but a few. Further, prevalence of drug use disorders in Uganda among youths aged 15 years has been rated at 0.03% and 0.09% among boys and girls respectively (WHO, 2010). Against this background, the parliament of Uganda passed the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (Control) Bill on 20th November, 2014. This Narcotics Law was passed with the objectives to among others adopt measures to criminalize drug related offences under domestic law in conformity with Article 3 of the United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances and other related international conventions, make provision for a mechanism to generate resources for law enforcement agencies through the confiscation of money and properties obtained from illicit trading in drugs and to provide deterrence against local drug abuse and to put in place a mechanism for the rehabilitation of drug addicts. The yet to be signed Narcotics law penalizes the act of possession of illicit and psychotropic drugs (Clause 4) as defined by the second and third schedule of the law to five hundred currency points (10Million Shillings) or three times the market value of the drug or imprisonment not less than two years but not exceeding ten years, or both such fine and imprisonment. For drugs listed in the third schedule, the penalty could go for up to fifteen (15) years. The offence of trafficking (Clause 5) illicit drugs is punished with a fine not less than five hundred currency points (10million Uganda shillings) or three times the market value of the narcotic drug or psychotropic substance, whichever is greater, and in addition, to life in prison. This penalty can be extended to anyone involved in aiding and abetting this offence including police officers (clause 6). Those that are actively smoking, chewing, or otherwise using these drugs can be liable to a fine not less than twenty four currency points (sixty eight thousand shillings) but not exceeding one hundred and twenty currency points (about 2million shillings) or imprisonment 1-5years, or both such fine and imprisonment. It should also be noted that this law also criminalizes failure to disclose prior prescriptions for narcotic drugs including those held for pets such as dogs and farm animals –some of these drugs can act as de-wormers for farm animals but are also recommended by traditional communities for use as pesticides. Several people can be imprisoned to life in jail for possession and cultivation (Clause 11) of these crops in ignorance of the existing law. This is in spite of the fact that the government, has not put in place alternative crops that can be grown by communities that solely depended on these plants as a source of income. In some instances no actual regulation exists for some narcotics such as the amphetamine methylphenidate which despite being classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency; the American government agency that controls narcotic use as Schedule II placing it in the same brackets as Cocaine, methylphenidate can be purchased with no prescription in Ugandan pharmacies under the brand name Ritalin. Ritalin is prescribed to hyper active kids or kids that suffer from ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), when consumed in excessive amounts it causes dopamine levels in the brain to increase – a condition we casually refer to as getting “high”. From a human rights perspective, laws such as this Narcotics law can be detrimental in supporting people who use injectable drugs to manage diseases such as HIV treatment. This is because, if they declare their drug dependence problems, they could suffer jail time –thus in order to prevent being sent to prison, they opt to suffer in silence. World over, when ever drug users are incarcerated, their rights to access health care or medical help is abused. Quite often drug users are tortured physically with no help for counseling services; police officers arrest them arbitrarily, they are offered no fair trials but instead are subject to jail terms as their case is one regarded to be of strict liability. While these policing practices aim to reduce substance use, studies have not found an association between increased levels of police activities and improvements in drug use behaviour (Odinokova V, 2014) As opposed to focusing more on law enforcement, it is pertinent that government agencies including ministries of health, finance devote a specific budget to rehabilitating victims of drug abuse in Uganda, sensitize the masses and further put efforts with the aim of reconciling the narcotics law with what is on ground. This would be important for human rights and the rule of law in Uganda. Every Ugandan ought to know what the law on drugs is, how and when to follow it. As it stands right now, many are unsure about the regulations on drugs and psychotropic substances.

1 In May and June, 2014, Two Ugandans were hanged for trafficking in illegal drugs to China. 22 more were reported to be facing trial with penalties including life in prison. See link

2 Butabika is Uganda’s only national referral hospital for patients suffering from mental health related illnesses.