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Drug treatment court opens

Government and legal officials at the opening of the Drug Treatment Court

Guyana’s first Drug Treatment Court, opened its doors on Monday, aimed at giving convicted drug addicts a chance to receive treatment and reduce overcrowding of the country’s prisons.

Located in the Georgetown Magistrates’ Court, the facility will permit easier access to resources and personnel, including stakeholders such as the police, social services, health and drug treatment providers for the efficient operation of the court.

Welcoming stakeholders at the commissioning ceremony, National Anti-Narcotics Agency Director Major General (Rt) Michael Atherly said the Drug Treatment Court was the “strongest possible evidence of the determination of all national and international stakeholder agencies, not just to fight the menace of drugs, but also to fight together to achieve progress. He described the drug problem as a serious threat to public health, safety and the wellbeing of nations, “It undermines the national security and sovereignty of states, as well their economic and social stability,” Atherly was quoted as saying by government’s Department of Public Information (DPI).

Attorney General (AG) and Minister of Legal Affairs Basil Williams said through the collaborative effort of the judiciary, the National Anti-Narcotics Agency, OAS and the Inter-American Drug Abuse Commission Control, justice will not only be done but be seen to be done.

“Through their collaborative efforts, we will be contributing to the effective rehabilitation and reintegration of non-violent drug offenders suffering from drug addiction. Whilst it is the government’s constitutional responsibility to protect its citizens, through initiatives for the effective reduction of crime, it is also their social responsibility to protect disadvantaged persons and create opportunities for all persons to live productive lives, free from stigma and discrimination.”

The AG added that the Drug Treatment Court integrates the public health and criminal justice system, to curb the multi-dimensional drug issues Guyana faces.

“It provides the offender with a more viable option which not only benefits him or her but for society as a whole. The court takes a social approach which promotes public safety, reducing the occurrence of drug-related offences, recidivism, substance abuse, prison overcrowding and the overall cost to the state which may be diverted to other social programmes.”

The AG opined that the court will be a catalyst for similar courts regionally. He also mentioned the draft amendment to the Narcotic and Psychotropic Substances Control Act pending Bill, Chapter 1010, aimed at reducing overcrowding in the prisons by removing custodial sentences for possession of fewer than 30 grams of marijuana, and implementing monetary fines, instead.

Pointing to the fact that records indicate that one-fifth of the prison population has been incarcerated as a result of drug possession, Public Security Minister Khemraj Ramjattan said that an alternative had to be found. “An additional reason that compelled movement away from incarceration was the high cost to maintain inmates.” The Minister further expressed the hope that the Drug Treatment Court brings successes and rehabilitation, as it is intended to do, and he thanked stakeholders for making it possible.

He was followed by OAS Representative Ambassador Jean Ricot Dormeus, who preceded OAS-CIAD Executive Secretary Ambassador Adam Namm, an executive member for the committee for the DTC’s establishment.

The ambassador described October 21, 2019, as “the day of new beginnings”. He said, “We are launching the Drug Treatment Court to bring hope to many victims of drug abuse and numerous families in Guyana. We are culminating a painstaking process of regional cooperation, training and coordinating. We are giving birth to a new structure that will contribute to optimise the distribution of justice and improve peace and security in our society.”

Delivering the feature address at the commissioning ceremony – chaired by Chief Justice Roxanne George Wiltshire CCH, SC – Chancellor of the Judiciary Madame Justice Yonette Cummings-Edwards OR, CCH said the facility, which cost just under $1 million, is a step in the right direction.

“Some of the key interventions in the drug treatment plan are educational sessions, one-on-one sessions, group counselling, drug testing, treatment recovery plans, reintegration post-graduation plans,” she said.

The legal luminary explained that after a comprehensive assessment by a team of officials, the successful participant’s case will be disposed of by the magistrate, “The Drug Treatment Court then is seen as an intervention, rather than a sentence. It is a holistic approach by the courts, social services, by the police, defence counsel, medical services, laboratories and everyone working together, to help the offender.”

Fifty-three professionals from the legal fraternity (lawyers, magistrates, DPP Chambers, Guyana Police Force), treatment and rehabilitation centres (Phoenix Recovery Project, Salvation Army Rehabilitation Centre), the health fraternity (Ministry of Health’s Mental Health Unit) and Social Services, were trained in effective toxicology practices, ethical issues for drug treatment court practitioners, incentives, sanctions, and therapeutic adjustments, among other areas. They will be part of the Drug Treatment Court’s operations.

The National Drug Strategy Master Plan 2016-2020 outlines several initiatives to address the drug problem from both a public health and public security perspective. These include exploring various alternatives to incarceration, reducing sentences for various non-violent drug-related offences and the establishment of drug treatment courts.