‘Found in the Dark’ The Impact of Drug Law Enforcement Practices in Myanmar
To address its serious drug use problems, Myanmar should change its drug policy towards a harm reduction approach. Instead of a repressive approach, voluntary and evidence-based treatment and public health services, including harm reduction, should be made available and become generally accepted by enforcement officials and by the community at large.
Situated in South East Asia’s ‘Golden Triangle’ , Myanmar is well known for poppy cultivation and opium production. International reports claim that the country is the world’s second largest opium producer after Afghanistan . Opium cultivated in Myanmar is locally consumed, especially in the mountainous ethnic regions where it also has traditional and medicinal uses. However, a large amount of opium is turned into a more dangerous form - heroin - for the local market as well as for export, mostly to countries in the region, especially China. Myanmar is also under international surveillance because of its production and export of amphetamine type stimulants (ATS). In Myanmar prevalence of problematic drug use is high, though there is no reliable data on the issue. According to official reports, the most commonly used illicit substances are heroin, opium, methamphetamines, and cannabis. Major health problems such as HIV, hepatitis B and C, drug overdoses and tuberculosis are related to risky injection practices and the sharing of smoking paraphernalia. Problematic drug use is especially related to unsafe practices by injecting heroin users.
Myanmar has very strict drug laws and policies, and its legal framework emphasises harsh sentences and the criminalisation of drug users rather than providing access to health and harm reduction services. As a result, Myanmar’s jails are filled with drug-use-related petty offenders. Many drug users also face abuse and extortion from police officers and armed groups for possession of small amounts of drugs or needles and syringes. Local communities (including religious groups) stigmatise drug users as morally weak. Moreover, they are made scapegoats for drug-related problems in communities in the context of an unstable political situation and conflict between the government and armed groups in Myanmar’s ethnic areas. Due to limited permission by the authorities and lack of technical support, very limited research has so far been carried out on the effects of the legal framework and its enforcement practices on the rights of drug users and their access to healthcare, including life-saving services.
This report highlights the impact of current drug law enforcement practices in Myanmar and illustrates why a change in drug legislation and policy is necessary. It is based on life experiences of drug users affected by Myanmar’s repressive policies and laws and was drafted in collaboration with the National Drug User Network in Myanmar (NDNM), a network composed of current drug users, methadone clients and recovering drug users. NDNM members conducted a series of interviews with arrested drug users in seven regions of the country and participated in two focus group discussions on the impact of drug enforcement practices.
• Myanmar has serious drug use problems, largely related to unsafe practices such as needle sharing by injecting heroin users. The country’s current approach to addressing drug-related problems focuses on repression, mainly by arresting and incarcerating drug users. This paper analyses the impact of drug law enforcement practices on drug users in Myanmar. It shows the failure of the current drug law enforcement system, with drug users and their families as the principal victims.
• The criminalisation of drug use and possession for personal use is heavily impacting the lives of drug users and their families. It is cause for stigmatisation by the community they live in; it increases risky drug use behaviour, and is the basis for police harassment and corruption.
• The vast majority of arrests made as a result of drug laws concern drug users and small dealer/users. Prisons are overcrowded with drug users sentenced to excessively long jail terms. Prisons and labour camps lack appropriate health care and do not provide for the basic needs of inmates. Very few large-scale traffickers are targeted for arrest or have been put in prison.
• Female drug users, in particular, have received very little support to face their problems. Often abandoned by their families and communities, female drug users are in need of services targeting their specific needs.
• Instead of a repressive approach, voluntary and evidence-based treatment and public health services, including harm reduction, should be made available to people who use drugs. Harassment by enforcement officials and corruption in the justice system should be addressed. A harm reduction approach needs to become generally accepted by enforcement officials and by the community at large. Myanmar’s drug laws should be reformed to address these issues, and support drug users and other marginalised communities affected by drugs instead of punishing them.