Repressive drug laws and corruption have contributed to Myanmar’s spiralling narcotics problem, according to advocacy groups, who are calling on the new government to launch a change of policy.
The transfer of power to a new government has come at an opportune time for a policy revision, with a United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) due to start on April 19 amid expectations of a change in the global approach to the scourge of narcotics.
Advocacy groups are taking the opportunity to lay out their proposals. Myanmar’s Drug Policy Action Group (DPAG) has called for a “re-set” of the objectives of both national and international drug policies and the scrapping of “drug-free deadlines”, which it says has led to the current repressive system. The deadline for so-called drug elimination in Myanmar is currently set for 2019, which was set back from an initial goal of 2014.
The DPAG also seeks a commitment to “harm reduction” programs and an end to criminalisation of the most vulnerable groups of drug users and opium farmers.
At the moment very little is being done on the prevention and treatment aspects of drug addiction. While the guidelines for these programs are set by the Ministry of Home Affairs, harm reduction is not implemented by the government but by NGOs, said Dr Nang Pan Ei Khan, a DPAG coordinator and medical doctor.
Lamay Lom Khaung, who runs a drug user network in Kachin State as part of the National Drug User Network Myanmar, emphasised the need for a humane policy toward drug users and increased understanding about their problems and treatment.
“We are not born as drug users,” he said.
He illustrated his call for the education of communities by saying that a program aiming to distribute clean needles to drug users to prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis C had been badly received in Kachin State, where an aid worker was seized and beaten by people who thought he was encouraging people to use heroin.
Myanmar’s legal system demands drug users to register themselves and receive compulsory treatment, or face three to five years’ imprisonment. This deprives them of the opportunity to find treatment elsewhere and leads to the jailing of people who do not require treatment. Possession of drugs carries a minimum five-year sentence.
The death penalty can be imposed for the production and sale of narcotics, although Myanmar’s last reported execution was over 25 years ago.
The law also criminalises farmers who mostly grow opium out of economic necessity. U Min Thein, an opium farmer from Kayah State and a member of the Myanmar Opium Farmers Forum, had been growing maize and sesame when, he said, he found a “shortcut”. By growing opium there was no longer a need to pay high transportation fees to get to a nearby market to sell his produce, which almost nobody wanted. Buyers now came to him and he sold his entire crop. Suddenly he was able to send his children to school.
Drug users and opium farmers like U Min Thein would benefit significantly from a legal system that stops criminalising them and instead acknowledges their needs, the advocacy groups say.
A new drug law that was drafted last year but has not yet passed through parliament represents a step in that direction. If implemented under the new government, the law would be a “move from the punitive side to the public health side”, said Troels Vester, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Myanmar.
A call made by Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia to revise the international community’s approach to drugs moved the General Assembly to bring forward the third UNGASS to discuss global drug policy, initially scheduled for 2019.
Part of the three-day UN meeting in New York will be dedicated to heroin and methamphetamine production and trafficking, precursor trafficking, and high levels of drug use in the Golden Triangle and Mekong areas. Myanmar will send a “high-level delegation” to the meeting on April 19, with Thailand, China, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam also set to take part, according to UNODC.
UNGASS “represents a critical juncture, an opportunity for an honest evaluation of global drug policy and how to address the most pressing challenges going forward”, said the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute (TNI).
However, little is known about how Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the new government intend to tackle these issues. The NLD election manifesto last year said almost nothing on the subject.
UNODC says it is “already engaging” with the NLD to “discuss options and solutions” on drugs in Myanmar in an effort to “turn the situation around”.
But developing drug policies is a challenge in Myanmar, where reliable data is often lacking. UNODC plans to complete the first national drug use survey involving 53,000 households early next year.
The government’s 2006-10 “national strategic plan” for HIV and AIDS estimated 60,000 to 90,000 injecting drug users in Myanmar. However a 2006 report by TNI cites international NGOs as estimating the number of drug users at between 300,000 and 500,000, including an estimated 150,000 to 250,000 injecting drug users.
UNODC recommends a “whole government approach to drugs”. Counter-drug efforts in Myanmar are managed by the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs but Mr Vester suggested that responsibility for certain sectors, such as prevention and treatment, could be led by the education and health ministries.
“The drug issue is so big,” he said. “To think that one ministry would deal with this issue is unrealistic.”