We live in a world that questions the value of everything, but we know science-based drug prevention works and is extremely cost effective. For every US$1 spent, we could save US$10 in terms of future health treatment and crime costs.
Drug use in the Middle East and North Africa represents a clear and present challenge to countries. By focusing on preventing illicit drug use with young and vulnerable people, governments can limit the impact of drug use on their societies, particularly in the areas of health treatment and law enforcement.
In Egypt, for example, surveys taken by the authorities show that around a quarter of a million people aged 15 to 64 have taken opiates in the 12 months prior to the 2012 questionnaire. The figure is almost the same for amphetamine-type-stimulants. Cannabis use is also rising in both North Africa and the Middle East.
The story behind the statistics is how illicit drug abuse impacts on societies by extending outwards from individual users, through families, and reaching deep into communities. Studies in the Middle East and North African region show that drug use is happening at an earlier age in successive generations; this points to greater problems in the areas of health, society and law enforcement. To counter this trend, interventions for young people need to be targeted at different age groups and delivered in various settings such as families, schools, and communities. But, there also needs to be a shift towards a more balanced approach; one that reduces both the demand and supply of illicit drugs.
Fortunately, science is now driving prevention practices. We know what interventions are appropriate to which age group and in which social setting. Science also shows which interventions are counterproductive and which are not cost effective. This is exactly where the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) can assist. At the recent 56th Session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, UNODC released the first ever international standards on drug use prevention. These standards are part of our work in building capacities among local institutions, offering training and reviewing national legislation. But drug prevention also needs to be a long term investment, if it is to be sustainable. UNODC is working with its partners in North Africa and the Middle East to help achieve this; however, we also need the support of the donor community.
There are four essential areas to be considered in preventing people taking illicit drugs. First, individuals using substances are vulnerable to factors over which they have very little control. These factors are present at the level of the individual, the family, and the community. Second, drug prevention needs to be distinguished from awareness raising or merely sensitizing people to the problem. Third, drug prevention is not a short-term campaign or an intermittent and occasional intervention, it is a long-term approach based on reliable scientific evidence. Fourth, we need to systematically place our prevention practices within an integrated programme developed specifically to counter drug use.
As an example, evidence-based training in family skills has been effective in preventing substance use among children and adolescents. These programmes help parents build skills in the areas of monitoring and supervising children's activities. Beyond simply preventing drug abuse, such training has led to improved scholastic achievement, as well as reductions in risky behavior and criminality, among others. It has been calculated that the cost saving is around US$10 for every 1US$ invested.
In today’s difficult financial environment, everyone needs to appreciate the sound economic arguments for comprehensive drug prevention activities. By spending today, we avoid the expense of tomorrow. But we need to spend appropriately, and UNODC's international prevention standards can help. Drug prevention is a sensible investment which works. If we ignore it, we risk escalating both the problem and the future costs.
The writer is the Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime