The need for a new of­fen­sive in the war on drugs

Mizzima Business Weekly - - CONTENTS -

Young par­ty­go­ers in South­east Asia or as far afield as Aus­tralia or North Amer­ica may have been miffed last month after the Myan­mar Navy seized 2.4 mil­lion ec­stasy pills on a boat off Kawthaung, the na­tion’s south­ern­most port. The Au­gust 19 seizure of the “party drug” was a feather in the cap of the Myan­mar au­thor­i­ties as they bat­tle the il­le­gal drug trade. Myan­mar has the du­bi­ous hon­our of be­ing South­east Asia’s largest maker of syn­thetic drugs and the world’s sec­ond largest opium and heroin pro­ducer after war-torn Afghanista­n. Most of the drugs man­u­fac­tured in hid­den lab­o­ra­to­ries near the bor­der are des­tined for dis­tri­bu­tion through­out the re­gion but a per­cent­age ends up for sale in Western coun­tries.

The Myan­mar au­thor­i­ties told the me­dia the ec­stasy seizure was the big­gest

since 2005, when 50,000 of the tablets were seized. In Yan­gon, the 2.4 mil­lion pills would have a street value of about US$200 mil­lion, but in other mar­kets in the re­gion and beyond they would have fetched much more. Ec­stasy, which re­leases in­hi­bi­tions and be­fore be­ing made il­le­gal in the United States in 1985 was used in re­la­tion­ships coun­selling for trou­bled cou­ples, is a so-called “party drug” that is popular at rave par­ties or trance mu­sic events. It tends to be popular among more af­flu­ent youth who are bet­ter able to af­ford ec­stasy than cheaper drugs such as am­phet­a­mine or metham­phetamine.

The seizure by the Myan­mar Navy pro­vided a use­ful pub­lic re­la­tions boost for the war on drugs. But it’s a war that is fail­ing on a lo­cal, re­gional and in­ter­na­tional level. It is not that the anti-nar­cotics au­thor­i­ties in Myan­mar and other coun­tries are not do­ing enough to stem drug traffickin­g. The seizure is likely to have dis­rupted one drug king-pin’s op­er­a­tion. But as so of­ten hap­pens, although the crew of the ship car­ry­ing the ec­stasy was ar­rested, it is un­clear whether the mas­ter­minds of the op­er­a­tion will ever be ap­pre­hended.

Nine times out of 10 when big drug seizures are made, it is the couri­ers or traf­fick­ers who are ar­rested and jailed, not those who stand to profit most from the op­er­a­tion. The top dogs of drug traffickin­g op­er­a­tions use their prof­its to buy po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence and the ser­vices of cor­rupt law-en­force­ment of­fi­cials to en­sure they can op­er­ate with im­punity. Suc­cesses can be short-lived. The ef­forts by the mil­i­tary junta in neigh­bour­ing Thai­land to pur­sue drug lords, ar­rest them, and con­fis­cate their prop­erty – as seen in co­or­di­nated raids on about five dozen lo­ca­tions on Au­gust 31 – were sig­nif­i­cant but may not re­sult in a big dis­rup­tion to the trade, de­spite the se­cu­rity forces claim­ing the si­mul­ta­ne­ous raids will be used as a model in an “all-out anti-nar­cotics” ef­fort to tackle traffickin­g. It’s a pat­tern. Ev­ery so of­ten, a crack­down is launched and a drug king­pin is caught, but such vic­to­ries in the war on drugs do not hap­pen as of­ten as they should. Be­fore long it’s back to “business as usual”.

As Myan­mar strives to build a brighter and bet­ter fu­ture, the coun­try re­mains dogged by its bad rap on drugs. The big ec­stasy seizure was likely a lucky break, a “suc­cess” that can be trum­peted. But the scale of the il­licit drug trade in Myan­mar is con­sid­er­able and ev­i­dence of that is the con­stant seizures by po­lice in Thai­land of metham­phetamines, known as yaaba or “crazy drug”. Pres­i­dent U Thein Sein’s gov­ern­ment may be mak­ing progress bring­ing Myan­mar into the 21st cen­tury, but there are lim­its to what we can ex­pect when it comes to the ef­fec­tive sup­pres­sion of the drug trade.

There are no easy an­swers when try­ing to deal with nar­cotics traffickin­g. It is as much about de­mand as about sup­ply. In Myan­mar that means se­ri­ous drug ad­dic­tion is­sues, par­tic­u­larly metham­phetamine and heroin use among young peo­ple, many of whom live in eth­nic mi­nor­ity ar­eas where ed­u­ca­tion and em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties are limited. Neigh­bour­ing Thai­land has a Myan­mar-made metham­phetamine epi­demic on its hands, with deal­ers even be­ing caught sell­ing the “crazy drug” out­side pri­mary schools.

There are no easy an­swers to this scourge that da­m­ages lives, de­stroys re­la­tion­ships and fu­els cor­rup­tion. Clearly the world­wide “war on drugs” is not work­ing, de­spite the me­dia head­lines that trum­pet drug seizures, and the ar­rests of drug mules, users and ad­dicts. Some pun­dits ad­vo­cate le­gal­is­ing the drug trade, claim­ing it would re­duce crime, treat users as vic­tims and make it eas­ier to man­age the prob­lem. Oth­ers call on coun­tries such as Myan­mar and Thai­land to get more se­ri­ous about tar­get­ing the drug lords.

In its re­sponse to ad­dic­tion, Myan­mar de­serves credit for set­ting a re­gional ex­am­ple through its prag­matic adop­tion of harm re­duc­tion at the grass­roots level with the support of the Na­tional Drug Abuse Con­trol Pro­gram, as we re­ported in our pre­vi­ous is­sue. But more needs to be done. More drop-in cen­tres are needed for peo­ple who in­ject drugs as well as a greater ef­fort to cre­ate more aware­ness in the com­mu­nity about the dan­gers of in­ject­ing drug use and how the shar­ing of need­less can spread HIV and AIDS. Grass­roots NGOs such as the Asian Harm Re­duc­tion Net­work are help­ing be­cause they recog­nise that users need care not in­car­cer­a­tion.

A re­newed ef­fort is needed to tackle both ends of the drug trade. A more con­certed cam­paign is needed against the drug lords and the cor­rup­tion as­so­ci­ated with traffickin­g. Harm re­duc­tion fa­cil­i­ties need to be ex­panded to help more peo­ple. Ac­tion is es­sen­tial; there are lives at stake.

An in­ject­ing drug user in Kachin State. Photo: Wai Yan

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