They called it “Drug-Free ASEAN by 2015.” It was proclaimed many times by ASEAN leaders: We would be ushered into a miraculous new era of the only region in the world where the scourge of narcotics had been banished.
By setting this 2015 deadline for the elimination of drugs, ASEAN leaders seemed to believe that the “war on drugs” in Southeast Asia could mysteriously triumph through an orthodox mix of zealous eradication, enhanced crackdowns on drug trafficking, and ruthless law enforcement
Now that we are well into 2015, we can consider the reality. Thailand’s prisons are bursting at the seams thanks to harsh sentences for minor drug offences. Meanwhile, Indonesia has carried out a string of executions, and yet the flow of methamphetamines trafficked in the region has almost quadrupled since 2008.
More than 70 percent of Thailand’s 330,000 prisoners are behind bars for drug offences, and about 82 percent of Thailand’s female inmates are mothers, many of whom are incarcerated for minor drug offences.
In Jakarta, the latest episode in the drugs war is the spate of death row executions by President Jokowi Wododo, who has refused to even consider the merits and legal requirements of considering clemency on humanitarian grounds.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported that in the past seven years seizures of methamphetamine in the Asia-Pacific region have almost quadrupled: from 11 tons in 2008, to more than 40 tons in 2013. During that same period opium cultivation has doubled and heroin addiction rates have spiraled in China and Myanmar.
“Asia’s drug war has demonstrably failed to reduce either drug supply or drug demand, and its grand delusion of becoming ‘drug free’ grows more farcical with each passing year,” Ann Fordham, executive director of the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), told The Diplomat.
Many civil society groups and even former heads of state have called for an end to the war on drugs, urging leaders to give far greater priority to harm reduction, human rights and public health. Uruguay, Portugal and some parts of the United States have all passed new drug laws that have either legalized or decriminalized cannabis. Portugal has removed criminal penalties for the use and possession for personal use of all drugs and increased provisions for health and harm reduction.
Gloria Lai from the IDPC sadly notes that ASEAN lags behind other parts of the world: “There seems to be little appetite amongst regional government leaders for an honest assessment of the effectiveness of existing drug strategies, and for shifting away from constructing drugs as a security issue.”
In answer to The Diplomat’s question about whether the “drug-free ASEAN” needed a reality check, Jeremy Douglas, regional representative the UN Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) responded, “ASEAN states themselves debated what ‘drug-free’ meant in 2005-2006. Our understanding is that they decided the term ‘drug-free’ would remain, but it that it means the drug situation is manageable and under control.” While leaders still adhere to the same old mantra of “a drug-free ASEAN,” senior drug officials are coming around to a view based on dealing with the everyday reality.
Thai Minister of Justice General Paiboon Khumchaya spoke before a packed hall at Bangkok’s Centara Hotel at a drugs seminar on July 6. His audience, including judges, prosecutors, senior police commissioners, and public health officials, heard something unusual from the minister. According to IDPC communication officer Patrick Tibke, Paiboon told his audience that the eradication of illegal drugs was a counterproductive policy goal, and one that should no longer be pursued.
Such heavy-handed law enforcement strategies, said Paiboon, have led only to systemic police corruption, and prison cells overcrowded with non-violent offenders – mostly drawn from the ranks of the impoverished.
The UNODC’s Douglas, who is based in Bangkok, also sees the need for a new approach. “Member States should debate different approaches to drug control, implement health centered approaches, and treat drug users as patients not criminals.”
Myanmar is the one ASEAN state that has performed some kind of official reality check, by unilaterally extending the date for the complete eradication of opium cultivation and manufacturing amphetamines until 2019.
Even in Myanmar, the world’s second largest producer of opium, senior drug officials are starting to listen to civil society, according to Tom Kramer the Burmese specialist for the Trans National Institute (TNI), which runs a drugs and development program in Southeast Asia and in Latin America.
According to Kramer, “Poor farmers from the Shan state have told drug officials that poverty is the main driver of opium cultivation.” The TNI analyst added, “You cannot get rid of opium until you can provide sound economic alternatives such as crop substitution.” TNI advocates an end to all poppy eradication, arguing that it is counter-productive, only drives the farmers into more remote areas, and robs communities of a traditional and valuable source of medicine.
Illicit opium has long been used by hill-tribes and ethnic minorities in Asia for the therapeutic qualities derived from its morphine content and is their main source of income. Clinically approved morphine injections are routine treatment for extreme pain in the Western world, but ironically they are not officially available in Yangon’s hospitals; families seeking it for medical use are forced to resort to the black market.
Previous UN-backed crop substitution projects were not very successful, and one in Wa State was terminated. Three new projects are now underway in Hopong Township in southern Shan state, which accounts for 55 percent of all the opium cultivated in Myanmar (with northern Shan state representing another 35 percent).
However senior UNODC staff admit that to make a real difference they will need huge donor funding over many years, to plant the seeds of a viable alternative to the current opium economy.
The IDPC and other drug reformers feel that a dialogue is beginning with ASEAN authorities, and a few mild reforms such as reduced sentences are in the pipeline. While the widely discredited compulsory detention centers for drug users, which are usually run by the police or the military, are still in use, some governments in the region are beginning to discuss alternatives.
In Myanmar, new drug legislation is being prepared with the help of UN-Aids and UNODC, and may delve a little further into the area of much-needed reform. But there is growing consensus that the war on drugs has failed. Reformers argue that ASEAN’s pretense that a victory was around the corner was not only misguided, but seriously detracted from a rational socio-legal approach to the use and abuse of drugs.
Tom Fawthrop is a freelance journalist based in Southeast Asia.
*This story has been updated since it was first posted.