Addressing drug problems in Myanmar

5 key interventions that can make a difference
28 February 2017
Policy briefing
Time has come to embrace a different approach and adopt policies that are based on public health, community safety, human rights and development. Only such policies will deliver on the promise to improve people’s lives; only such policies will truly allow Myanmar to reduce the harm caused by problematic drug use, trafficking and production.

This policy briefing was drafted by a group of local and international organisations with indepth knowledge and extensive experience of drug-related issues in Myanmar. It is structured around a set of five strategic interventions, each of which comes with concrete recommendations that are adapted to the Myanmar context. It contains reliable, up-to-date information and examples of evidence-based practices from Myanmar and around the world.

We identify the following 5 key strategic interventions.

  • Increase access to health, harm reduction and voluntary drug treatment for people using drugs
  • End the criminalisation of drug users and small-scale farmers
  • Refocus law enforcement efforts on violent organised crime and large-scale drug production and trafficking
  • Promote development projects in opium growing areas
  • Include civil society and affected communities in policy reform 

 

Introduction

Myanmar’s drug policies are out-dated and inadequate to respond to the great challenges posed by problematic drug use and production in the country. The 1993 Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Law has failed to eliminate - or even reduce - drug use, trafficking and production. Worse, the implementation of harsh policies and penalties has caused immense additional harm to Myanmar people and communities.
 
Thousands of people have been unnecessarily exposed to the risk of infectious diseases and premature death as a direct result of those policies. Myanmar prisons are filled with drug users serving long-term sentences for mostly non-violent small drug offenses, while major traffickers are left undisturbed. Entire villages of impoverished poppy farmers have been targeted by forced eradication campaigns and pushed further into poverty, without any viable livelihoods alternatives to survive and pay for healthcare and education of their children.
 
Fortunately, successful interventions have also been conducted in the country. HIV prevalence among people who inject drugs started to decline following the implementation of health and harm reduction services for drug users. The lives of thousands of drug users and their families have hugely improved, thanks to the benefits of methadone programmes initiated by Myanmar Ministry of Health and Sports. Several isolated communities from Eastern Shan State that were included in alternative development programmes voluntarily abandoned opium cultivation and successfully transitioned towards licit livelihoods strategies.
 
These domestic experiences add up to a growing body of evidence from all around the world, which indicate that policies grounded in public health, human rights and development, can yield an impressively wide range of benefits. Indeed, such policies not only improve people’s health and support livelihoods, they also lower levels of drug related crime and corruption, reduce violence, conflict, and pressure on the criminal justice system, and ultimately result in greater social cohesion.
 
Existing good practices are no doubt positive steps but are yet to be implemented at scale. Overall, the lack of adequate response by previous Governments has led to great frustration among affected communities and the Myanmar population at large, as drug related problems have continued to mount and have become a key national concern.
 
Time has come to learn from such failures, embrace a different approach and adopt policies that are based on public health, community safety, human rights and development. Only such policies will deliver on the promise to improve people’s lives; only such policies will truly allow Myanmar to reduce the harm caused by problematic drug use, trafficking and production.