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Repressive policies stoke Asean drug problem

The Association of Southeast East Asian Nations strategy to become "drug free" by 2015 is failing dramatically. In the last decade, opium cultivation has doubled, drug use -- especially of methamphetamines, a powerful synthetic stimulant -- has increased significantly, and strong links remain between drugs, conflict, crime and corruption.

     This unrealistic deadline-oriented thinking has resulted in repressive drug policies, mainly targeting marginalized communities of drug users, opium farmers and small traders. Asean decided this target in 1998, the year the U.N. General Assembly dedicated a special session to the global drug problem. While U.N. agencies and most countries have since abandoned the illusion of a drug-free world, Asean reaffirmed its commitment to "realize the vision of a drug-free Asean 2015 and beyond," in September 2013.

     Yet, Southeast Asia remains the world's second-largest illicit opium producer after Afghanistan, responsible for about 30% of crops. Efforts to reduce growing through opium bans and eradicating poppy fields have displaced cultivation -- mostly to northeast India and southern Shan State in Myanmar. They have also caused great misery for communities unable to find alternative incomes. Opium is again on the rise in Laos, where traditional consumption persists.

Bound to fail

These policies have had little lasting effect because opium is often the only viable cash crop to address food shortages and high levels of poverty among various marginalized ethnic groups, which have been plagued by decades of armed conflict. For them, opium is essential to ensure access to food, medicine and household goods.

     Chinese heroin consumption, meanwhile, continues to rise sharply. This overall increase explains the doubling to tripling of Myanmar heroin prices in the past five years, as detailed in new research by the Transnational Institute. In addition, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that 3 million-4 million people in Asia inject drugs, and a high proportion of HIV and Hepatitis C cases are associated with drug use. UNAIDS estimates that about 18% of injecting drug users in Thailand and Myanmar are HIV infected. All Asean countries have reported significant increases in methamphetamine use, including crystal meth injection.

     Repression has also hampered access to health care and treatment, and led to the imprisonment of countless users and small traders. Hundreds of thousands of people are arrested for drug offenses in Asean every year, including about 200,000 in Thailand alone. In April 2014, Thailand had a record prison population of 292,000, roughly two-thirds of these are for petty drug convictions.

     In Asia, jail terms are generally disproportionate and prisons overcrowded. There are frequent reports of mass compulsory "treatment" and systemic human rights violations. A total of 12 U.N. agencies have joined a call for closing compulsory treatment centers. Forced treatment has proven ineffective, with high relapse rates, and is often criticized as a violation of human rights and a waste of resources, since the majority of drug users do not need treatment at all. The U.N. General Assembly and several U.N. agencies have also called for ending the death penalty for nonviolent drug offenses.

Silent victims

The region's drug policy debate has so far excluded the most affected: drug users and opium farmers. While injecting drug users have had access to discussions on aid allocations to address the HIV epidemic, poppy growers have had no say in policies that profoundly affect them. Both groups need to be involved in meaningful efforts to make policies more humane and effective.

     International failure to prevent the growth of the flourishing illicit drug trade has enabled criminal groups, syndicates and government-backed militias to operate in areas already rife with ethnic tensions, conflict and weak governance. There is an official tendency to blame "opium kings" and "narco-trafficking armies" rather than addressing the high levels of corruption in the region.

     These problems are not unique to Southeast Asia. Increasing drug-related problems have led authorities worldwide to rethink failing strategies and adopt more pragmatic and humane alternatives that prioritize health, development, peace-building and human rights. Reform proposals from a range of countries, international organizations and advocacy groups include decriminalizing drug use; applying principles of proportionality in sentencing guidelines; ending the ban on psychoactive plants such as coca, khat, cannabis and kratom; shifting resources from law enforcement to alternative development and harm reduction; prioritizing adequate access to essential medicines; and providing evidence-based voluntary treatment services.

     In Southeast Asia, instead of visions of a drug-free Asean, policies and resources should be redirected toward curbing the most damaging features of the drug market, because it is here to stay. The current policies are not only bound to fail but will also further devastate lives. At a time when the U.S. and Latin America are turning their backs on earlier wars on drugs, and as the international community starts preparing for the next U.N. special session on drugs in 2016, Asean should also rethink its drug policy.

Tom Kramer and Martin Jelsma are analysts for the Transnational Institute, an independent policy think tank in the Netherlands, and co-authored the institute's new report "Bouncing Back -- Relapse in the Golden Triangle."

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