Fair, humane drug policies for Asia in 2021
Life was made harder for many people when the COVID-19 virus swept the world. It was even harder for people who found themselves caught up in the wide radius impacted by blindly brutal drug policies. This is particularly true for Asia—a continent characterized by governments that demonize drugs and the people associated with them.
In Cambodia, a pregnant woman at home opens the door to police accusing her and her husband of selling drugs; no drugs could be found but she and her husband are still sent to prison where, after being denied justice at every step, she eventually gives birth then raises her baby in a dirty, dank, overcrowded cell.
Alas, her case is no rarity in the region, as the predicaments of people in various countries show. People like Kian delos Santos, the 17-year-old boy in Caloocan City, Philippines, who was shot dead, then later accused of being a drug courier. Or Merri Utami, the migrant worker in Indonesia’s death row because, in her own words, “I was accused of smuggling drugs in the bag I brought, inside of which lay 1 kilogram of heroin I did not know of.” Or Fidelis Arie Sudewarto in Indonesia, jailed for eight months and fined $75,000 for the “crime” of growing medical marijuana to help ease the suffering of his dying, cancer-stricken wife.
Alongside many others who faced or are facing similar violence, legal or otherwise, what these cases have in common is that drugs are invoked by authorities as justification for measures that go beyond the bounds of what is just, reasonable, and humane. Another thing they have in common is they come from economically deprived or marginalized backgrounds, reminding us that a “war on drugs” is all too often a war on the poor.
Their harrowing predicaments remain the stories of people’s lives today, even amid a crippling pandemic. Countries like Indonesia, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka may have announced measures to release people from prison to relieve overcrowding and prevent the spread of COVID-19, but even though the majority of people in prisons are held for drugs, people sentenced with a drug offence were often excluded from these prison release measures. In Cambodia, over 6,000 people held in prison were moved to simply another form of detention, referred to as “drug rehabilitation centers.”
Even without a pandemic, governments should halt raids and arrests targeting people who use drugs. However, 2020 saw no signs of a drop in the number of people arrested for drug use and possession, for example in Thailand; nor in the number of people killed during anti-drug raids in the Philippines.
The year 2020 did have some bright spots, where light was shone to make more visible the specific vulnerabilities and needs of certain groups of people in Asia who use drugs, such as women, transgender sex workers, and men who have sex with men. Their voices must be heard and their claims considered, not silenced by the violence of drug policies.
Drug policy can work to improve the health and welfare of people. Thailand demonstrates this in allowing the use and supply of cannabis for medical purposes, and prioritizing its benefits for local communities and economies. By allowing take-home doses of methadone, a substitution treatment program for people who use opiate-based drugs, India showed its ability to improve the health of people who use drugs by listening to them and allowing medical specialists to develop and monitor measures to adapt to the changing environment (and needs) brought by COVID-19 lockdowns.
This year can bring improvements, too, if we let go of politicized, misguided perceptions of drugs and the people who use them—and if we listen to the diverse voices of people who are affected by drug policies, working alongside them for fair, kind, and humane drug programs.
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Gloria Lai is the regional director for Asia of the International Drug Policy Consortium. Gideon Lasco is a medical anthropologist, drug policy scholar, incoming Centre for Criminology Fellow at the Hong Kong University, and PDI columnist.
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