Small shifts in Myan­mar’s war on drugs

The Myanmar Times - - News - NICK BAKER n.baker@mm­times.com

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.

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