Tackle Burma's Drugs Problem

05 April 2012
Article

Policy priorities should focus on how best to manage and reduce the many health and social harms associated with the reality of a persistent and ever changing drugs market. 

Burma/Myanmar is the world's second largest producer of opium after Afghanistan. Following a decade of steady decline, opium cultivation in Burma has doubled again since 2006, from an estimated 21,500 hectares in 2006 to 43,600 hectares in 2011. It is mostly cultivated by marginalized farmers in isolated mountainous areas in the Shan and Kachin States of northern Burma. Most of them grow it as a cash crop to buy food, clothes, and access to health and education. The decades-old civil war in Burma, and the failure of the government to address ethnic conflict, has also greatly contributed to opium cultivation in the country. All conflict actors in drug-producing areas are to some extent involved in the drugs trade.

National and local authorities have aggressively implemented opium bans and eradicated opium fields in response to international political pressure.

National and local authorities have aggressively implemented opium bans and eradicated opium fields in response to international political pressure. The main underlying reasons, however -- poverty and insecurity -- have not been properly addressed. Development interventions by international NGOs and U.N. agencies to provide farmers with sustainable, alternative livelihood options to offset the impact of opium bans have been grossly insufficient, and are merely emergency responses to prevent a humanitarian crisis. As well, the large-scale opium substitution program that China has initiated across its borders does not offer real solutions. The main beneficiaries of the subsidy scheme, tax waivers, and import quotas for agricultural concessions -- mostly rubber -- in former opium-growing regions, are Chinese businessmen and local authorities.

Experience elsewhere has shown that "alternative development" can address the needs of communities in opium-growing areas, while also contributing to a reduction in illicit cultivation under certain market conditions. Since the cultivation of opium often takes places in areas plagued by conflict, insecurity, and vulnerability, interventions should aim to enhance human rights protection, conflict resolution, poverty alleviation, and human security. They should also have a participatory approach and respect for traditional culture and values. Another lesson learned is the importance of proper sequencing: There should be no eradication or strict enforcement of opium bans unless viable and sustainable livelihoods are sufficiently in place. Aid should not be made conditional on reductions in opium cultivation. Instead, indicators for a successful policy should focus more on progress in human development.

Burma also confronts serious problems related to drug use. The number of drug users has grown dramatically, and consumption practices over time have changed from traditional opium use to smoking and injecting heroin. The increasing number of injecting drug users and the related expansion of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Burma present one of the most serious health threats to the population in the country and the region at large. Infection rates among drug users in Burma are among the highest in the world. The problematic use of methamphetamine has also become associated with a range of communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B and C infections, and tuberculosis -- as well as mental health problems, in particular among vulnerable groups such as female sex workers. There is an urgent need to scale up quality prevention, treatment and harm reduction services for drug users and people living with HIV, who should be properly consulted in the decision-making.

The main victims of these repressive drug control policies are the most vulnerable in the chain.

Drug laws in Burma -- as in the region -- are harsh and penalties are disproportionately high. The main victims of these repressive drug control policies are the most vulnerable in the chain: opium farmers, micro-traders, and drug users. Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies, the justice system, and prisons are overburdened by the criminalization of people who instead need health care and social support. The overly punitive approach has even caused a dramatic scarcity of opiate medicines essential for pain relief, an absurd situation in a major opium producing country.

Legislative reforms, such as the decriminalization of possession for personal use and alternative sentences for low-level drug offences, would make drug policies more consistent with human rights principles. It would also relieve the burden on the criminal justice system and free up resources to scale up quality services. Authorities in the region are still pursuing the illusionary goal of a "drug free ASEAN by 2015." Instead, policy priorities should focus on how best to manage and reduce the many health and social harms associated with the reality of a persistent and ever changing drugs market.

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