Govt crack­down prompts calls for re­form as drug ad­dicts suf­fer

The Myanmar Times - - News - PHYO THIHA CHO news­room@mm­times.com

SEV­ERAL young men were stand­ing near the en­trance of Thin­gangyun Hos­pi­tal in cen­tral Yan­gon on a re­cent July morn­ing, wait­ing im­pa­tiently for a fel­low drug ad­dict to exit the fa­cil­ity.

They had just re­ceived their daily dosage of methadone, but one man was not com­ing out. Af­ter a few min­utes, they con­cluded he must have failed the manda­tory il­le­gal drugs test and got de­tained. The group quickly left.

“One of the guys was ar­rested by po­lice at the hos­pi­tal,” an ad­dict named Soe Maung said later. “Re­cently, a girl was ar­rested in the same hos­pi­tal while get­ting methadone … She tried to run away but a po­lice­man caught her by the neck.”

Like the others, Soe Maung, 28, is tak­ing methadone to wean him­self off heroin and fight its with­drawal symp­toms. He is also a con­tact per­son for the Bur­net In­sti­tute’s HIV Mit­i­ga­tion pro­gram for drug-in­ject­ing users and he helps Yan­gon’s opi­ate ad­dicts en­ter methadone ther­apy.

Drug users who regis­ter their ad­dic­tion with po­lice and health au­thor­i­ties can avoid crim­i­nal pun­ish­ment from Myanmar laws, which set tough prison sen­tences for nar­cotics use, pos­ses­sion and sale. They can en­ter manda­tory methadone main­te­nance ther­apy at 46 hos­pi­tals across Myanmar, in­clud­ing Thin­gangyun Hos­pi­tal, to sup­press with­drawal symp­toms as they give up il­le­gal drugs.

Health ex­perts, rep­re­sen­ta­tives of drug users and some politi­cians say methadone ther­apy, and other so­called harm re­duc­tion strate­gies for drug users, should be ex­panded to bring Myanmar’s ram­pant drug abuse prob­lems un­der con­trol.

They say the gov­ern­ment should also change laws that pe­nalise re­cov­er­ing ad­dicts who test pos­i­tive for il­le­gal drugs, or pun­ish those who fail to at­tend methadone ther­apy and reg­u­lar po­lice reg­is­tra­tion.

They warn, how­ever, that the Na­tional League for Democ­racy gov­ern­ment’s ap­proach so far has only been puni­tive, as the Min­istry of Home Af­fairs launched a na­tion­wide drugs and crime crack­down that ar­rested many ad­dicts, but did lit­tle to help them.

The min­istry re­cently said it wants more money for its crack­down, while some MPs have called for tougher ac­tions against drugs and crime.

Gov­ern­ment crack­down nets mostly ad­dicts Soe Maung said the NLD’s ap­proach had raised fears among Yan­gon’s ad­dicts, while po­lice were more quick to ar­rest re­cov­er­ing users who failed the con­di­tions of the methadone ther­apy pro­gram.

“More ad­dicts who are tak­ing methadone have been ar­rested dur­ing the first 100-day plan of the new gov­ern­ment,” he said.

Okkar Min, an up­per house NLD law­maker from Tanintharyi Re­gion, urged his gov­ern­ment to aban­don this re­pres­sive ap­proach and in­tro­duce gen­uine re­forms.

“The gov­ern­ment needs to lay down a pol­icy to open more re­hab cen­tres for drug ad­dicts. If it keeps ar­rest­ing all drug users, as it has been do­ing over the past few months, then they will fill up the pris­ons but the prob­lem won’t be solved,” he said.

Ac­cord­ing to the Min­istry of Home Af­fairs, po­lice ar­rested 4761 peo­ple in 3197 drug-re­lated cases be­tween April 1 and July 31. Sev­eral hun­dred kilo­grams of opium and heroin, and mil­lions of metham­phetamine pills were seized, but ar­rests of those run­ning the drug rings re­main rare.

“When I asked po­lice of­fi­cers about those ar­rested in the drugs crack­down they were just small deal­ers or users,” Okkar Min said. It would be more ef­fec­tive, he added, to fight gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion and in­crease pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion cam­paigns that warn youths about nar­cotics.

Plans to re­form laws, ex­pand re­hab Myanmar has long been a ma­jor pro­ducer of opium, its derivate heroin and metham­phetamine, much of which orig­i­nates from and passes through its poor, eth­nic bor­der­lands, where the gov­ern­ment re­mains weak. Drug abuse in these ar­eas and in Myanmar’s ma­jor cities has re­port­edly wors­ened sharply in re­cent years, prompt­ing calls for a new ap­proach to drug ad­dic­tion.

The Drug Pol­icy Ad­vo­cacy Group, a net­work of health ex­perts and NGOs, has worked with health of­fi­cials on ex­pand­ing harm re­duc­tion and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­grams, while it co­op­er­ated with law en­force­ment of­fi­cials to de­velop plans for amend­ing drug laws.

U Hla Htay, se­nior tech­ni­cal man­ager at the Bur­net In­sti­tute and a mem­ber of the group, said the gov­ern­ment’s ca­pac­ity to pro­vide methadone ther­apy is hin­dered by cur­rent laws and lim­ited due to a lack of re­sources and fa­cil­i­ties.

He said there are now about 7000 reg­is­tered ad­dicts seek­ing re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, but Thin­gangyun Hos­pi­tal, for ex­am­ple, can only pro­vide methadone for 400 ad­dicts on a daily ba­sis.

An opi­ate detox­i­fi­ca­tion cen­tre at Yan­gon Men­tal Health Hos­pi­tal in East Dagon town­ship, on the city’s out­skirts, can treat only 50 pa­tients at a time for a two-week treat­ment.

Ac­cord­ing to some es­ti­mates there are 81,000 drug users in Myanmar.

U Hla Htay said methadone sup­plies at the Yan­gon Men­tal Health Hos­pi­tal were of­ten not suf­fi­cient for the detox­i­fi­ca­tion treat­ment. “We can­not give ad­dicts the amount of methadone they asked for, and ev­ery project needs good fa­cil­i­ties and skilled staff,” he said. “But we have plans to ex­pand this project.”

The Thin­gangyun Hos­pi­tal methadone ser­vice is lim­ited to 8am to 11am, an­other prac­ti­cal hindrance for ad­dicts, who might re­lapse if they miss the methadone’s clinic open­ing hours, ac­cord­ing to U Win Min, a Bur­net In­sti­tute staffer who coun­sels ad­dicts.

U Hla Htay said drug re­form ad­vo­cates have worked to­gether with po­lice of­fi­cers of the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee for Drug Abuse Con­trol (CCDAC) to draft amend­ments to the 1993 Nar­cotic Drugs and Psy­chotropic Sub­stances Law, which would re­move penal­ties for drug users.

Po­lice Colonel Myint Aung, who heads the In­ter­na­tional Depart­ment of the CCDAC, con­firmed the draft amend­ments had been com­pleted. “We are go­ing to send this bill to the Union At­tor­ney Gen­eral’s Of­fice and later it will be dis­cussed in par­lia­ment,” he said.

“Drug users are now ar­rested, but this bill would en­force steps that would make it a health is­sue, rather than a crim­i­nal one,” he added.

U Hla Htay said he hoped the bill could be brought to the at­ten­tion of the NLD gov­ern­ment and par­lia­ment within the next few months so that it could be­gin re­forms.

“Drug ad­dicts should not be im­pris­oned. In­stead they need opi­ate detox­i­fi­ca­tion treat­ment,” he said. “If they were found to be us­ing drugs, po­lice should urge them to go to hos­pi­tal.” – Myanmar Now

Photo: EPA

A poppy farmer uses an opium pipe in Par Nauk vil­lage in eastern Shan State.

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