Repressive policies only stoking Asean's drug problem

10 June 2014

The strategy of Asean's 10 member countries to become "drug free" by 2015 is failing dramatically. In the last decade, opium cultivation in the region has doubled, drug use -- especially of methamphetamines, a powerful synthetic stimulant -- has increased significantly, and there remain strong links between drugs, conflict, crime and corruption.

This unrealistic deadline-oriented thinking has resulted in repressive drug policies, mainly targeting marginalized communities of drug users, opium farmers and small traders. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed on this target in 1998, the year the U.N. General Assembly dedicated a special session to the global drug problem. While U.N. agencies and most countries have long since abandoned the illusion of a drug-free world, Asean at a high-level meeting in September 2013 reaffirmed its commitment to "realize the vision of a drug-free Asean 2015 and beyond."

Yet, Southeast Asia remains the world's second largest opium-growing area after Afghanistan, responsible for about 30% of global illicit cultivation. Efforts to reduce cultivation by implementing opium bans and eradicating poppy fields have displaced the crop to other areas -- mostly to northeast India and southern Shan State in Myanmar. They have also caused great misery for communities that have not been able to find alternative income sources. And opium cultivation is again on the rise in Laos, where traditional consumption persists.

Bound to fail     

These policies have had little lasting effect because opium is often the only viable cash crop to address food shortages and high levels of poverty among marginalized communities of various ethnic groups in the region's uplands, which have been plagued by decades of armed conflict. Opium for them is an essential income source to ensure access to food, medicines and essential household goods.

Repressive drug policies, meanwhile, have led users to more harmful patterns of drug use, especially injecting heroin and to shifting back and forth between heroin, methamphetamine, pharmaceutical opioids and other psychoactive substances depending on price, quality and availability. Some areas in northern Myanmar face a heroin epidemic, with high addiction rates among young people and dramatic rates of HIV and Hepatitis C infection among drug users. In these areas the social impact has been severe.

Chinese heroin consumption, meanwhile, continues to rise sharply. Although precise figures are not available, the overall increase explains the doubling to tripling of heroin prices in Myanmar in the past five years, as detailed in new research by the international think tank Transnational Institute. In addition, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that 3-4 million people in Asia inject drugs and that in several countries in the region, a high proportion of reported HIV cases are associated with drug use. UNAIDS estimates that about 18% of injecting drug users in Thailand and Myanmar are infected with HIV. All countries in the region have reported significant increases in methamphetamine use, including injection of crystal meth.

Repression has also hampered access to health care and treatment, and has led to the imprisonment of countless users and small traders in the region. Hundreds of thousands of people are arrested for drug offenses across Asean every year, including about 200,000 in Thailand alone. As of April 2014, Thailand had a record prison population of 292,000, of which roughly two-thirds were convicted for petty drug offenses.

Generally in Asia, jail terms are often disproportionate and prisons are overcrowded. There are frequent reports of mass compulsory "treatment" and systemic human rights violations. A total of 12 U.N. agencies have joined a call for closing compulsory treatment centers in the region. Forced treatment has proven ineffective, with high relapse rates, and is often criticized as a violation of human rights and a waste of resources, since the majority of drug users do not need treatment at all. The U.N. General Assembly and several U.N. agencies have also called for ending the death penalty for nonviolent drug offenses.

Silent victims

The drug policy debate in the region has so far excluded the voices of those most affected: drug users and opium farmers. While injecting drug users have had access to discussions about allocation of aid funds to address the region's HIV epidemic, poppy-growing communities have not had any say in policies that profoundly affect their livelihoods. Both groups need to be involved in meaningful efforts to make policies more humane and effective.

The international drug control system has failed to prevent the growth of a huge and flourishing illicit drug market. This has created conditions for criminal groups, drug-trafficking syndicates and government-backed militias to operate in an environment already rife with ethnic tensions, conflict and weak governance. There has been an official tendency to blame the region's drug problem on "opium kings" and "narco-trafficking armies" rather than addressing corruption schemes that come dangerously close to the higher echelons of power in the region.

These problems are not unique to Southeast Asia. But in some parts of the world, growing drug-related problems have led authorities to rethink failing strategies and adopt more pragmatic and humane alternatives that prioritize health, development, peace-building and human rights. Proposals for reform from a range of countries, international organizations and advocacy groups include decriminalizing drug use; applying principles of proportionality in sentencing guidelines; ending the ban on psychoactive plants such as coca, khat, cannabis and kratom; shifting resources from law enforcement to alternative development and harm reduction; prioritizing adequate access to essential medicines; and providing evidence-based voluntary treatment services for those who need them.

In Southeast Asia, instead of clinging to the illusion of a drug-free Asean, policies and resources should be redirected toward curbing the most damaging features of the drug market, because whether we like it or not, that market is here to stay. Continuing on the same path is not only destined to failure but will also inevitably further devastate human lives across the region. At a time when the U.S. and Latin America are turning their backs on their earlier wars on drugs, and as the international community starts preparing for the next U.N. special session on drugs in 2016, Asean should also rethink its drug policy.

photo by Jason Jones