Will Myanmar lead drug policy reform in Southeast Asia?

Myanmar is better known for its serious drug problems - including large-scale illicit drugs production and trafficking and high rates of heroin use - than for implementing progressive drug policies that prioritise the health of its population. However, this could change in the near future.

Change is in the air

Myanmar is better known for its serious drug problems - including large-scale illicit drugs production and trafficking and high rates of heroin use - than for implementing progressive drug policies that prioritise the health of its population. However, this could change in the near future. Last year, Police Colonel Myint Aung, head of the International Department of the Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control (CCDAC), commented in an interview that legislative changes were being considered to “make [drug use] a health issue, rather than a criminal one”.[1] More recently, Major General Aung Soe, the military-appointed deputy Minister for Home Affairs, declared to a Member of the Parliament that “prevention and judicial strategies are not enough to solve drug problems,” and that “the economy, social affairs, health and development must [also] be taken into consideration”.[2]

This changing approach to tackling drug issues is reflected in a draft bill that was approved by the upper house of the Parliament (“Amyothar Hluttaw”) on the 16th of August. The text proposes to introduce several amendments to 1993 Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Law and, most notably, to eliminate prison penalties for drug use. In a country where failing to register as a drug user can lead to 3 to 5 years imprisonment, and where up to 74% of all inmates are in prison for – mostly minor – drug-related offences,[3] the step is  significant. However, if Myanmar policy makers really want drug users to be seen as people who need help and support, rather than as merely criminals, it is fundamental that they also extend the exemption from prison penalties to include the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use.

The decriminalisation of drug use has long been advocated for by numerous organisations, including several local and international NGOs and UN Agencies.[4] In February this year, the Drug Policy Advocacy Group – Myanmar (DPAG), a civil society platform, also released a briefing that recommended ending the criminalisation of drug use and increasing access to health, harm reduction and voluntary treatment for drug users, among other interventions. Indeed, extensive evidence from around the world shows that, while the fear of prison penalties is not an effective deterrent against drug use,[5] it does have a substantial negative impact on the health of drug users and the community at large.[6]

What benefits can be expected from the current drug law reform?

The elimination of prison penalties for drug use will no doubt generate a debate in Myanmar. Already numerous people, including parents and teachers, are raising an important and legitimate question: what will happen if Myanmar stops arresting and incarcerating drug users? Won’t the country witness a further increase of drug use, especially among young people?

The best way to answer this question is to look at what has happened in the more than 30 countries that have already conducted similar reforms, albeit using very different models.[7] Among those, the case of Portugal is emblematic, as results have been closely monitored and speak for themselves.

In 2001, the Portuguese Government announced that it would decriminalise drug use and scale up health and social interventions for drug users. Opponents strongly criticised the Government’s decision and predicted a rampant increase of drug use among the youth, or even the impending transformation of Portugal into a haven for “drug tourists”. More than 15 years later, none of these predictions have materialised. Instead, Portugal’s policy has been saluted as one of the most successful in the world due to overwhelmingly positive results: the transmission of HIV and other blood-borne diseases sharply decreased; the number of deaths by overdose dropped; the number of drug users entering drug dependence treatment programmes increased dramatically, while the number of drug users and problematic drug users, especially among adolescents, fell. Finally, overcrowding in the criminal justice system reduced and crimes related to drug consumption, in particular petty thefts, declined.[8]

Several countries in Latin America have also carried out legal reforms that pursued the same objective and decriminalised drug use. In Southeast Asia, neighbouring Thailand is considering introducing similar changes to reduce prison overcrowding and respond more effectively to drug use related problems.[9] Myanmar’s decision to prioritise a public health and human rights approach, in line with the 2016 UNGASS Outcome Document, is a highly encouraging move that sharply contrasts with the intensification of the war on drugs and the increase of violence observed in the Philippines and a few other countries in the region.[10]

Of course, every context is unique, and it is always difficult to anticipate the impact of a given policy change. However, the numerous experiences around the world clearly show that the harms of criminalisation far outweigh those of decriminalisation.[11] The Myanmar government’s intention to eliminate prison penalties for drug use is therefore excellent news and must be applauded.

A closer look at the proposed changes, nevertheless, reveals that the draft bill recently approved by the upper house of the Parliament still contains problematic aspects. Four of them, in particular, require special attention: the continued criminalisation of drug possession for personal use; the imposition of compulsory treatment for drug users; the heavy criminalisation of small-scale subsistence poppy farmers; and the continued possibility of using the death penalty for drug related offences.

Fortunately, it is not too late to incorporate additional amendments to the text. The following sections propose calibrated but essential changes that Members of the Parliament could consider as priorities. These would assuredly help to improve the lives of tens of thousands of people suffering from drug related problems in the country.

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