Despite pledges for reform, addicts sent to prison instead of rehab
POLICE in Muse township raided a drug user’s house and sent 11 addicts to prison last week, claiming that the nearest rehabilitation camp was too far to arrange a transfer.
The punitive move goes against the Ministry of Home Affairs’ repeated pledges to transition away from imprisoning drug users, and instead focus on boosting rehabilitation efforts.
Acting on a tip-off, anti-drug police cracked down on the house in Nan Sum village in northern Shan State on September 3.
“We detained 11 drug users from the drug camp. Now they are being detained in the Muse Township Police Station,” said Police Sergeant Tin Oo from the anti-drug police force.
Police also confiscated 65 pink amphetamine tablets and three grams of heroin, and seized 10 motorbikes. Charges have been filed under sections 15, 19(a) and 20(a) of the National Drugs Law, for manufacturing and distributing unlicensed drugs. If convicted, they face a maximum combined sentence of eight years in prison.
Lawmakers and advocacy groups have pushed for a revision of Myanmar’s draconian drug laws, which stipulate harsh sentences for narcotics use, possession and sale, arguing that repression can fuel worse consequences.
When asked by The Myanmar Times why the 11 drug users were not enrolled in a rehabilitation program, an officer from the Muse Police Station laughed.
“How far from Muse is Lashio or Tachileik?” the officer said. “We detained the drug users at the police station because the rehabilitation centres are too far away.”
Drug users who register their addiction with police and health authorities are supposed to be able to avoid criminal punishment through entering mandatory methadone therapy at 46 hospitals across the country.
Police Brigadier General Kyaw Win, general secretary of the central committee for drug abuse control, said, “According to the new drug policy, instead of imprisoning drug addicts, they should be registered and helped to quit from using drugs again.
“We were trying to reform the process and policy for drug users,” he added.
While the new drug policy was drafted under the previous administration, it was not finalised or approved before the transfer of power. The new parliamentary session has yet to discuss or enact the draft law.
But the current government’s approach has appeared to be almost solely focused on punitive crime reduction measure.
According to figures the Ministry of Home Affairs provided to Myanmar Now, police arrested 4761 people in 3197 drug-related cases between April 1 and July 31. A total of 7000 drug users have registered at methadone clinics.
No official data on the number of drug users in Myanmar currently exists, although the UN Office on Drugs and Crime is carrying out an initial survey. Myanmar is the second-largest opium producer in the world and is also a key producer of methamphetamine. By some estimates, there are as many 83,000 men who inject drugs nationally.
According to a 2015 report by the Transnational Institute on “The Current State of Counternarcotics Policy and Drug Reform Debates in Myanmar”, the central government is unable to provide effective treatment for drug users, and focuses instead on outdated and ineffective tactics like arresting drug users and eradicating poppy fields.
The report called on the government to prioritise alternative development programs that support sufficient livelihood alternatives to poppy growing. Affected communities, especially drug users and opium farmers, need to be involved in formulating the drug policy, the report said.
‘We detained the drug users at the police station because the rehabilitation centres are too far away.’
Police officer in Muse