NCDA says loopholes in legislation creating opening for drug snacks
WITH official confirmation now in hand that the sweets consumed by Ocho Rios Primary School students in October — resulting in them being rushed to hospital — contained a mind-altering element, the National Council on Drug Abuse (NCDA) is pressing for changes to the Dangerous Drugs Act to cover a wider range of substances given the explosion of new psychoactive substances in drug markets.
“There are gaps, there are loopholes. How are these products getting into the island? What’s happening at the ports and what do we have in place to test? Those are the kind of things we need to really pay attention to. We have flagged it with our leaders and they have recognised the importance of quick action,” research analyst for the NCDA Uki Atkinson told the Jamaica Observer Wednesday.
“We need to address it on multiple levels. We at the NCDA would say first and foremost is the need for legislative changes to address the loopholes and gaps that exist in our laws, there is the need for inclusion of a broader range of substances in the Dangerous Drugs Act especially now that we know that there are new psychoactive substances in drug markets that have been exponentially increasing in recent years,” Atkinson pointed out further.
New psychoactive substances, otherwise called NPS, are a class of substances that are not under international drug control laws.
On Monday, October 2, more than 60 Ocho Rios Primary School students were rushed to St Ann’s Bay Hospital after consuming sweets laced with what has now been confirmed to be THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the substance primarily responsible for the effects of marijuana on a person’s mental state. At least seven were hospitalised afterwards. Since then, a vendor of Mansfield Heights, Ocho Rios St Ann, was named as a person of interest in relation to the sale of ganja-laced sweets, and the NCDA said several reports of other children’s snack containing THC have surfaced.
Said Atkinson, “The reality that we face is that beyond the easy access to alcohol which has been a reality in our context for many decades…there are now cannabis products, there are psilocybin products [psilocybin is the active ingredient in the magic mushroom] and there are other products with psychoactive effects such as electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) — which are the increasingly popular class of tobacco products, known by different names such as e-cigarettes, vape and so on.”
According to Atkinson, the ready availability of the products to children is even more cause for worry.
“There are several points of sale for all of these products that are accessible to our children which includes places likes convenience stores, shops online, online platforms, various dealers who are also selling these products, there are even some health food stores that are selling the cannabis and psilocybin products and not to be ignored is the presence of MDMA [molly/ecstasy] which is a synthetic drug that has grown in popularity not only here in Jamaica but across the Caribbean, mainly as a party drug but also being used otherwise recreationally,” she said.
While noting that the problem is being experienced by other Caribbean countries Atkinson said “they are synthetic, made in the labs and they have the same psychoactive effects like regular traditional drugs but can be way more dangerous, way more potent and can have significant effects on public health. So there is need for us to ensure that our legislative framework, we have to be prepared because they are coming to our shores, it is not a matter of if, it is when”.
She, in the meantime, said, along with the reshaping of the legislative framework, there is need for increased awareness and capacity building among the medical and educational communities.
“Thankfully there was a swift reaction to what happened at Ocho Rios Primary and all the necessary services were activated forthwith and that was good because the effects on the children could have been way worst had they not gotten the medical attention they needed right away. So capacity building and increased awareness for medical emergencies, treating things like drug overdoses that is needed for the medical community,” Atkinson said.
“We also need increased capacity building and support for the education sector, teachers, guidance counsellors, education personnel overall, they are stretched with a range of problems but the truth is they are also facing problems that are related to students and drug use, so the behavioural patterns and changes in academic achievement and so on, some of those issues, the violence, some of them are related to substance use; so there is need for us to build capacity for them to be able to handle it,” she added.
She said the NCDA post the incident has trained over 100 guidance counsellors from Trelawny and St Ann on how to screen and conduct brief intervention and referrals to treatment.
“Those efforts are under way they need to be sustained and expanded. There is definitely an urgent need for that in our school system,” she said.
In the meantime, Atkinson said the NCDA has maintained a presence at the school.
“We have done activities there…our messaging has to change, they now need to be looking at what it is they are putting into their bodies, scrutinising the products they are buying and the kind of people they are buying from,” the NCDA research analyst said.
The planned roll out of an early warning system on drugs in February next year is in the meantime being viewed as a glimmer of hope by the NCDA. With this system, information about seizures at the various ports or points of entry, as well as from drug tests, would be fed into a system triggering investigators and key stakeholders about new substances that might be in circulation.
“We have organisations such as law enforcement, the medical community, Customs, forensics, narcotics, civil society, a broad range of actors, who are going to be part of this system to address threats that pop up, so a threat like what popped up at Ocho Rios would have activated a response which would determine of the threat needed to be classified as a national threat or not; that is how the system is intended to work,” Atkinson explained.
In 2019 the Ministry of National Security announced that it would be collaborating with the NCDA and other local stakeholders to establish an early warning system for drugs.