Small shifts in Myanmar’s war on drugs
MYANMAR has taken another tentative step away from draconian punishments for drug offences. The country joined several ASEAN nations and China in Bangkok yesterday in a joint commitment to strengthen “community-based health services” for people who use drugs around the region.
The meeting, organised by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), follows a similar pledge by the group of countries last year to put more focus on treatment services rather than punitive measures for certain drug users.
At the centre of the effort is support for community health providers who deliver basic medical and counseling services.
Drug treatment expert Olivier Lermet from the regional UNODC office in Bangkok said the dominant response to drugs in the region has been a “very law enforcement-oriented approach which [often disregards] … welfare of the community, public security, provision of health services, corruption [and] human rights”.
“Many casual drug users that are not dependent or problematic users end up being held for lengthy periods [in prison] which results in many negative consequences [such as] overcrowding, people not accessing quality drug treatment and continuing using them [sometimes] in more harmful manner,” he said.
Mr Lermet said there is now something of a global “rebalance” around drug policy to focus on justice reform and improved access to health services.
“What needs to be offered widely [in Myanmar] is a set of services from detoxification through to aftercare … There are huge opportunities for this in Myanmar,” he added.
“On some aspects – for instance Methadone programmes and needle and syringes [exchange] programmes is already happening – but we just need much more of this.”
Anand Chabungbam, a civil society representative advocating for better health and counseling services for people who use drugs, stressed that the treatment-focused approach was still in its early days.
“Voluntary community-level health and counseling programmes for drug users are still very limited in the region and they need to be expanded to help reintegration,” he said.
Myanmar is also in the midst of major consultations around reviewing the country’s 1993 Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Law, which is widely considered anachronistic and in violation of Myanmar’s human rights commitments under the UN charter.
The government is considering removing provisions of the anti-narcotics law that require drug users to register with authorities and stipulates prison time for those who fail to do so,
During one round of consultations on the law, the commander of the Drug Enforcement Division and joint secretary of the Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control, Brigadier General Kyaw Win, said the current drug control policy had “traditionally focused on supply reduction and law enforcement, which has led to limited results”.
Myanmar – as the world’s secondlargest producer of opium – accounts for about 90 percent of all opium poppy cultivation in the Golden Triangle area, which includes parts of Thailand, Laos and Shan State. Quantities of methamphetamines seized in East and Southeast Asia almost quadrupled between 2009 and 2014.