The New War on Drugs: ASEAN Style
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The New War on Drugs: ASEAN Style

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The pledge by ASEAN leaders to intensify campaigns to create a drug-free ASEAN by 2015 is increasingly out of step with international trends which, according to the recent findings of The Global Commission on Drug Policy, increasingly favor drug policy reforms like decriminalization and treating addiction as a public health issue.

Dr. Michel Kazatchkine, a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy told a Bangkok forum that the war on drugs is a failure. Citing the commission’s recent report, Kazatchkine said, “We recommend immediate major reforms of the global prohibition regime to halt the spread of HIV infection…” and other health problems.

Many countries around the world seem to agree. In Latin America, for instance, many governments have declared that the war on drugs has failed and are instead searching for a new, more common sense approach to the problem.

In Argentina and Mexico the possession of small quantities of certain drugs has recently been decriminalized. This followed Brazil partially decriminalizing drugs through a series of laws in the middle part of last decade.

Similarly, a majority of voters in the U.S. states of Colorado and Washington recently approved referendums legalizing the personal use of marijuana (marijuana is still illegal under federal statutes, which technically takes precedence over state laws). Many other states have legalized the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, while others, like New York State, are considering decriminalization. Meanwhile, many European countries– including the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain have also decriminalized drugs

Doing so has often proved remarkably successful, resulting in lower HIV rates and even, in some cases, a decline in drug usage. For example, a 2009 CATO Institute study of Portugal’s decision to decriminalize drugs in 2001 concluded: “In virtually every category of any significance, Portugal, since decriminalization, has outperformed the vast majority of other states that continue to adhere to a criminalization regime.”

ASEAN stands in stark contrast to these examples as member nations are clinging to tough anti-drug laws that champion aggressive law enforcement measures and the detention of 300,000 drug users and sex-workers outside the normal court system in compulsory rehabilitation centers.

Most shockingly, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Singapore still impose the death penalty for narcotic offenses. In some cases, narcotic crimes require mandatory death sentences. Not surprisingly, many drug-addicts are afraid to seek treatment for fear of being jailed… or worse.

Nor does change appear to be imminent. In Thailand last year the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (sister of ousted PM Thaksin) declared  a new “war on drugs” in the name of a “zero tolerance” policy.  Gen. Adul Saengsingkaew deputy national police chief was quoted by the Bangkok Post as stating, “The war on drugs now is going much better than it was under the previous government. Actually, it is even better than under the Thaksin Shinawatra administration which initiated this policy in 2001.”

The fact that the police chief cited Thaksin’s harsh crackdown on drugs in 2002 that led to as many as 2,700 deaths as a benchmark of success, is emblematic of the issue. Amnesty International and other human rights groups condemned the policy that encouraged this spate of extra-judicial killings, and undermined basic legal principles of bringing  suspects before a court.

Thai police statistics show that arrests for drug related charges have risen by 14% this year, while drug-related prosecutions have increased by 8%. Already drug offenders constitute 65% of Thailand’s incarcerated population. With prisons overflowing in the country, it’s unsustainable to continue increasing the number of imprisoned drug offenders.

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