With successful legalization or decriminalization efforts in several US states and Uruguay dominating the news, it’s easy to forget that the war on drugs is alive and well in most of the world — and nowhere is it more deeply ingrained than in Southeast Asia.
In 1998, the year that the UN held a special session of the General Assembly where it’s drug czar claimed that a “drug-free world” was attainable, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) announced an even more implausible policy goal: to make the region “drug free” by 2015.
With less than a year to go, the results are already in: after an initial dip in the early 2000s, opium production in the Golden Triangle — the infamous and often lawless region where Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand meet — has doubled in the last ten years and now represents 30 percent of global cultivation.
'It’s an illusion that you can make the drug market disappear when in fact the size of the market has not been reduced at all.'
Myanmar, the world’s second largest grower of opium, has seen its crop nearly triple since 2006. Towns in growing regions are now filled with addicts injecting heroin openly, sometimes accompanied by local police officers shooting up next to them. Ten years ago, opium cultivation in some of these towns had been nearly eradicated, but with few alternatives to sustain themselves, residents have little choice but to plant again.
Meanwhile, meth and other “amphetamine-type substances” are spreading rapidly. Once a transit point, Southeast Asia is now home to labs and a huge domestic market. Since 2008, meth seizures in East and Southeast Asia, Oceania, and the Pacific have nearly tripled.
Meth produced in labs in the Golden Triangle and Myanmar’s tumultuous Shan State is pushed across the region in the form of colorful caffeine-infused “yaba” pills. Everyone from children to prostitutes to middle-class workers and bus drivers have become addicted to the cheap drug. According to the UN, 88 percent of Thais treated at drug addiction centers in 2012 reported using methamphetamine.
Local traffickers enmeshed in the meth trade have established ties with dealers as far away as Nigeria. Between 2009 and 2013, more than half of the foreigners arrested at Lagos’s international airport for trafficking in amphetamine-type substances were citizens of Southeast Asian countries.
“It doesn’t make sense any more to think in terms of drug-free deadlines,” Martin Jelsma, coordinator of the Transnational Institute’s drugs and democracy program and co-author of a recent report titled “Relapse in the Golden Triangle,” told VICE News. “It’s an illusion that you can make the drug market disappear when in fact the size of the market has not been reduced at all.”
Last week, leaders from all 10 ASEAN countries met in Manila for the group’s 35th Senior Officials Meeting on Drug Matters. Hardly a dissenting voice on the issue was heard.
Southeast Asian countries have taken interdiction further than most, consistently executing its citizens and foreigners for non-violent drug crimes.
“The idea of drug law or policy reform is still taboo in the region, and drug policy-making processes, including at ASEAN, are highly resistant to civil society engagement and alternative viewpoints about drugs,” Gloria Lai, Asia regional expert at the International Drug Policy Consortium, told VICE News from Manila, where she attended the summit. “Many seem to accept drug control policies and campaigns and have little sympathy for people who engage in any type of drug-related activity, including use of or dependence on drugs.”
Much of Southeast Asia’s drug policy dates to the colonial period. Myanmar’s Excise Code of 1905 prohibits anyone from using or even carrying a hypodermic needle without a license. Violators are instructed to pay in rupees — a currency Myanmar stopped using over 60 years ago. Failing to register as a drug user, another outdated practice, is also illegal.
The colonial period was followed by a US-led global drug convention regime that favored prohibition and criminalization, leaving the door open for governments around the world to control their population by means of the war on drugs. Southeast Asian countries have taken interdiction further than most, consistently executing citizens and foreigners for non-violent drug crimes. Three ASEAN countries executed drug offenders last year. Earlier this year, Vietnam sentenced 30 people tied to heroin smuggling to death.
Four years ago, Indonesia introduced harsh minimum sentences just as countries like the US were moving toward reforming their own sentencing guidelines. Now, getting caught in Bali with more than a miniscule 0.05 grams of pot can land you in jail for years. Possession of more than five grams of heroin can get you life in prison.
Laws like these don’t stop the drug trade, clearly, but instead either ruin lives for casual drug use or push addicts further into the shadows and away from proper medical care and harm reduction. More than one in five users who inject drugs in Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia are infected with HIV. In Indonesia, the figure is 36 percent.
Among ASEAN member states, Thailand, with its nearly 300,000 incarcerated prisoners — more than France, Spain, Argentina, Egypt, and Australia combined — has taken the war on drugs to new heights. Human Rights Watch estimates that Thailand’s government carried out some 2800 extrajudicial killings in 2003 alone, in a repugnant effort to cleanse the country of drugs. While there had been talk of scaling back minimum sentencing and decriminalizing Kratom, the mild narcotic leaf traditionally chewed in the county’s South (and which could possible help wean addicts off meth), those hopes were undone by a military coup in May.
The military junta has since ordered authorities to ramp up controversial forced rehabilitation efforts that are common in the region. Human rights groups have documented forced labor and torture at so-called “treatment centers,” many in countries that receive drug enforcement money from Western countries via the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime. An estimated 300,000 “addicts” are held at over 1,000 compulsory facilities in East and Southeast Asia. In Vietnam, drug users have been used to process cashews for export.
UNODC will review ASEAN’s drug-free 2015 plan at the end of this year. Despite the region’s dismal human rights record, the UN body has already promised millions in assistance until 2017, raising questions of how critical it will be. The UNODC is funded mostly by Western countries concerned foremost with heroin and meth reaching their citizens, and less with how the war on drugs affects people in remote countries.
As long as drugs are illegal, the resulting high prices in countries like Australia and Japan will only make it more lucrative for traffickers to engage in riskier and more violent behavior — and harder for users to get proper treatment.
“The drug trade undermines the functions of government through corruption due to the disproportionately high profits to be made to the illegal nature of the market,” said Lai. “Criminal organizations involved in the drug trade tend to exploit already vulnerable women, who end up as drug couriers smuggling drugs out of economic desperation and deprivation.” It’s a picture repeated across the globe, wherever hardline drug policies and poverty coincide.
In Myanmar, where the government recently acknowledged that it had failed at its own quixotic attempt to wipe out opium production by 2014 (only to give itself another five years), methamphetamine production is filling the gap. The country, heralded by many in the West for its recent turn towards democracy (while its attempts to ethnically cleanse itself of its Muslim minority are ignored) is by some estimates now the largest producer of meth in the world.
But official complicity in the trade and a lack of optics associated with lab busts rather than the destruction of poppy fields makes going after opium farmers the preferred drug control policy of the government in Rangoon.
Opium eradication, like the destruction of coca fields in the South American Andes, has left growers of a crop with accepted traditional uses in a poverty-stricken limbo.
“Opium has important medical and cultural purposes, and is often cultivated by impoverished farmers living in remote areas to meet basic economic needs,” said Lai. The rebound in opium production has everything to with a lack of alternatives presented to rural dwellers. While opium cultivation often involves farmers who are historically not criminal, meth production is a wholly illicit enterprise.
Recent reforms in the Andes suggest a model for the region, at least regarding opium. Bolivia’s government has successfully reduced coca cultivation by legalizing the plant under international law and collaborating with growers unions, guaranteeing them income and securing them from eradication raids.
But any significant evolution on Southeast Asian policy will have to wait at least until later this year, when the UNODC delivers its post-mortem on ASEAN’s drug-free 2015 plan.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford