Asean: Drug policies undermine social cohesion
With heads of state gathering in Manila for the 31st Asean Summit on Nov. 10-14, it seems appropriate to examine whether there are more effective drug policies than those currently at play in dealing with the harms caused by drugs in society.
As former heads of state from Africa, Europe and Latin America, we recognize the fear that many communities feel, and the distress of policymakers in dealing with drugs. Sadly, however, this distress has too often resulted in punitive drug policies, which are based on repression with a view of completely ridding society of drugs.
This aim of creating a “drug-free society” has not always dominated the public and political landscape in Southeast Asia. In certain countries, traditional uses of some drugs such as cannabis, opium or kratom were tolerated and accepted. Indeed, the current prohibitionist international drug control regime is largely a Western construct, based on the UN conventions and political declarations, advancing a “drug-free society” as an objective.
This objective has not been achieved. The vision for a “drug-free Asean by 2015” did not materialize mostly because the aim was unrealistic, not because the level of repression was not high. Over five decades of prohibition have shown that applying harsh penalties to those who use drugs are no more dissuasive in curbing drug use than more proportionate sentencing.
Furthermore, harsh penalties for nonviolent drug offenses dehumanize people who use drugs and undermine the dignity of both those convicted and those who have to apply such laws.
The Philippines offers a striking example of the costs of violent repression — in lives, increased violence, public expenditure, the impact on public health, and the undermining of the rule of law. Yet despite these costs, there is no sign of long-term disruption in trade, no long-lasting solution.
Tragically, we have serious reasons to fear contagion of this violent approach to other countries in the region. Cambodia initiated a crackdown in January that has resulted in the arbitrary arrests of more than 8,000 people. The main noticeable impact has been increased prison overcrowding and a dramatic drop in people who use drugs accessing the healthcare services they need.
With the extrajudicial killings taking place in the Philippines making worldwide headlines, the government is also seeking to reintroduce the death penalty for drug-related offenses. This is a degrading and inhumane penalty, which has proven ineffective in reducing the supply and demand of drugs in Asean.
Furthermore, it goes against national reforms taking place in the region. Vietnam removed the death penalty for drug possession and appropriation in 2016, and Malaysia recently suspended the mandatory application of the death penalty for drug traffickers. Even Singapore has provided limited discretion for judges. These are essential steps, as the death penalty is a gross violation of international human rights law: Drug-related offenses can in no way be equated with most serious crimes such as murder.
There is reason to hope for more people-centered reforms. Thailand is considering alternatives to punishment for low-level actors in the drug trade, shifting its policy paradigm toward a public health approach. Myanmar is also reviewing its drug law, removing lengthy prison sentences for drug users and replacing these with prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and care.
But it is troubling to see that treatment remains compulsory in many Asean countries, even though evidence shows that coercion does little to help a patient to recover. To be successful, treatment, harm reduction and care must be based on a therapeutic contract between a patient and a doctor that is built on trust and confidentiality. Undermining this relationship means undermining the right to health, to which every citizen is entitled.
Addressing drugs and their potential harms is the responsibility of states and governments. The way they decide to approach drugs and the policies they put in place are also the concern of all citizens, their representatives in government, and their civil society movements.
All parties should ask whether current drug policies support efforts to reduce poverty, achieve a healthy society with access to services for all, develop sustainable agriculture rather than continue forced crop eradication with no viable alternatives to farmers, protect the most vulnerable populations including women and children, reduce inequality, and allow for effective rule of law.
With this wider view of how drug policy affects sustainable development in a comprehensive manner, it becomes clear that a public health approach, respectful of people’s rights and dignity, is the only viable way forward.
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Former presidents Ruth Dreifuss of Switzerland, Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, and Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria are members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy.
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