Kazakstan: Alarm at School Drug Test Plan

Minister says screening essential in war on drugs, but critics warn of unwarranted state interference.

Kazakstan: Alarm at School Drug Test Plan

Minister says screening essential in war on drugs, but critics warn of unwarranted state interference.

A member of Kazakstan’s parliament has joined rights activists in questioning an initiative by the interior ministry to introduce compulsory drug testing for school and university students.

On March 4, member of parliament Serik Temirbulatov requested a formal statement from Prime Minister Karim Masimov on the progress of the bill and what the justification for it was.

Temirbulatov said he accepted there was a need to curb the rising use of illegal drugs in Kazakstan, but he shared concerns that a group of human rights groups had raised about the idea of testing students for signs of drug use.

In a letter to the government on February 13, these groups spoke of the emergence of a police state.

“It is as if everyone were forced to turn out their pockets when they left a supermarket in case they had stolen something,” said their letter.

These groups believe compulsory drug testing would breach several constitutional rights and freedoms, including privacy rights and the presumption of innocence.

In January, Kazakstan’s interior minister Baurjan Muhamedjanov asked parliament to approve new legislation that would enforce drug testing in educational institutions.

“It’s needed most of all by the children themselves and by their parents,” he told legislators. “The sooner parents find out their child is ill, the easier it will be to get treatment.”

The ministry conducted a pilot study in a number of universities last year, and deemed it enough of a success to merit introduction nationwide.

The human rights groups dispute the value of the pilot study results, saying that only three per cent of those tested showed signs of narcotics use, much less than the ten per cent that officials had thought likely. In their statement, the groups concluded that 97 per cent of those who underwent testing were forced to do so for no reason.

No one disputes that Kazakstan faces a significant challenge from rising drug abuse.

The country lies on routes for Afghan heroin heading to Russia and other European states. As is typical in transit countries, local sales and use are on the increase, together with associated problems such as HIV transmission through shared needles.

Kazakstan is itself a major source of cannabis, which grows naturally in the southeast. The production and sale of these narcotics is illegal here.

Official figures from the interior ministry say there are 55,000 recorded users of illegal drugs out of a population of 15 million.

Critics of testing in schools and colleges say the measure would be of questionable legality, as well as being too blunt an instrument to curb drug use effectively.

Yevgeny Zhovtis, director of the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, one of the groups behind the open letter to the government, says it is wrong to target users, who are really victims, rather than dealers and traffickers.

The leader of the Society of Young Professionals, Nurul Rahimbekov, says more sophisticated social policies are needed to stop young people getting involved in drugs in the first place.

“What’s needed is effective preventive measures, not repressive methods,” he said. “The fight against drug use should be directed at its sources and not at the consequences, still less with methods like these.”

Bahyt Tumenova, who heads a health NGO called Aman Saulyk, worries that compulsory testing for drugs would set an alarming precedent for the authorities to introduce other kinds of intrusive measures.

A school head in Almaty who asked not to be named warned that testing might simply alienate young people in the highest risk groups, often from dysfunctional families, leading them to drop out of education.

“They will undergo testing, but what then?” she asked. “The kids will simply separate themselves off from school more than ever, and consequently they’ll spend more time on the street and become more vulnerable to drug dependency.”

Elmira Gabidullina is an independent journalist in Almaty.

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