The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has confirmed what to many has been clear for some time – that the production and use of synthetic drugs like amphetamines is widespread and growing globally, particularly in Southeast Asia.
A UNODC report singles out Indonesia, Malaysia and Cambodia as primary places for production and trafficking. It also notes that seizures of methamphetamine pills across the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) increased to 133 million in 2010, from 32 million in 2008.
Burma has been a traditional source of amphetamine production, but this has now shifted with China and the Philippines also entering the fray and Indonesia monopolizing ecstasy production for the whole region. Injected use and shared needles has also increased, potentially adding to the spread of HIV.
The latest report highlights the apparent inability of the authorities to enforce laws of their own making, laws that many see as having anyway been designed to appease the United States, which has conducted its ‘War on Drugs’ for well over a decade, often with poor results.
Programmes are seen as having failed because they often involve little more than a sledgehammer approach. Thailand, part of the notorious Golden Triangle of drug manufacturing, was roundly criticized over a drugs campaign in 2003 carried out by then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. More than 3,000 people died as a result, and human rights groups accused authorities of allowing extrajudicial killings.
If the idea was to curtail the drugs trade, then it also failed.
The number of arrests fell sharply, with about 60,000 people nabbed in Thailand in 2004. Then it was business as usual, and arrests reached more than 168,000 in 2009 and continued to rise into 2011, prompting Thaksin’s sister and recently elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to launch her own programme.
Yingluck says the current policy will also focus on treatment, while aggressively combating criminal gangs and tightening cross-border security to stem the flow of drugs from factories in eastern Burma.
Vietnamese programmes, meanwhile, are considered little more than the pooling of addicts by the authorities for forced labour, and their attitude is that drug users are criminals as opposed to people with a drug addiction who require treatment. Cambodia, Laos and the Philippines aren’t much better.
Indonesia, however, is winning itself a more compassionate reputation by treating users as patients with a medical issue. In doing this, Yakita was established in 1999 and aims to help reform drug users with an approach that includes detox, recovery, education and counselling through 15 clinics across the country.
Yakita has argued that failing to treat addiction means an addict has two rather grim choices – death or prison. Yingluck is probably steering an appropriate course with her government’s renewed emphasis on treatment, but broadly speaking, the regional attitude to the treatment of users means the next UNODC report will probably show little improvement from the current state of affairs.