Found in the dark

Myanmar's regressive drug policies must change
Nang Pann Ei Kham Ernestien Jensema
Friday, October 21, 2016

Some 400 people were charged with being “found in the dark” in Yangon, Myanmar in the first five months of 2015 alone. The charge carries a prison term for “any person found between sunset and sunrise, within the precincts of any dwelling-house or other building whatsoever without being able to satisfactorily account for his presence therein”. Drug users are often charged with being “found in the dark” or “being notorious”, just one indication of the inadequacy of Myanmar's current response to its drug problem, according to Found in the Dark, a recent report by the Transnational Institute and the National Drug User Network in Myanmar.

The same charge is often used against sex workers, street children, homeless people, or even political activists. Under the “Rangoon Police Act”, dating back to 1899, a person can be imprisoned for anything between 15 days to three months. National drug legislation in general stipulates very high sentences for relatively small offences. For example, drug users found in possession of a minimum of 3 grams of heroin, 3 grams of opium or 25 grams of cannabis for personal use should be sentenced to ten years of imprisonment. Although hard figures do not exist, several sources estimate that 60-70 percent of the prison population is detained for drug related offences.

Located in South East Asia’s ‘Golden Triangle’, Myanmar is well known for poppy cultivation and is second only to Afghanistan as the world's largest opium producer. Opium cultivated in Myanmar is mostly consumed locally. Rural and ethnic communities living in remote mountainous areas of Myanmar have been cultivating opium for traditional uses for more than a century. Opium is offered to visitors at homes, weddings and funerals. It is used as a natural medicine to treat diarrhoea, fever, pain and fatigue. However, a large amount of opium is refined into a more dangerous form, heroin, for both the local market and for export, mostly to neighbouring countries, especially China. There is no denying that Myanmar has a serious drug use problem. In the past three decades there has been a shift towards more dangerous patterns of drug use, such as smoking or injecting heroin. Needle sharing by injecting heroin users and other unsafe practices are common.

Recent estimates by the Myanmar government put the number of injecting drug users in the country at about 83,000. This figure seems conservative. Surveys by NGOs providing services to drug users, and by UN agencies, show that there could be as many as 300,000 drug users in the country. The country’s current approach to drug-related problems is repressive. This criminalisation of drug use and possession for personal use is heavily impacting the lives of drug users and their families. It leads to stigmatisation in the communities and increases risky drug use behaviour. It is also the basis for police harassment and corruption. In fact the report shows that the majority of arrested drug users have been forced to pay a bribe at some point during the procedures of arrest and sentencing or during their time in prison.

“I have been harassed by the police; I stay away from them. If they see me with someone known to them, they call me and ask me where we get drugs. They told me that they would arrest me if I don't tell them. They hit me. I have been arrested and I paid a bribe. I gave them all the drugs, my money and my motorbike. Even then they went to ask for money at home, from my family.” 33 year old male from Homon Ward, Muse, Myanmar.

Many arrests take place during special crack down periods, such as the “international day against drug abuse and trafficking” (June 26) or at the end of the year. The police operate with a quota system, which leads to arrests with the sole purpose of filling the arrest quota. As the report shows, not much evidence is needed for the police to arrest people on the charge of being “found in the dark”. Once known to the authorities, users are always the first to be suspected by police if they are spotted in the vicinity of a crime.

As a result, large numbers of people are in prison and labour camps for drug use or petty drug-related offences. Conditions are harsh, hygiene is poor, and some prisons lack access to clean drinking water. Health care in prison is limited, specific health services for drug users are not offered at all. Prison overcrowding has been reported to be as high as 50 percent and corruption is rife. Only last month Myanmar Now reported about large scale exploitation and human rights abuses in Myanmar’s prison labour camps.

Harassment by enforcement officials and corruption in the justice system should be addressed. Instead of a repressive approach, voluntary and evidence-based treatment and public health services should be made available to people who use drugs. This so called harm reduction approach needs to become generally accepted by decision makers, enforcement officials and by the community at large. Myanmar’s drug laws should be reformed to address these issues, and provide support instead of punishment for drug users and other marginalised communities affected by drugs. Indeed, harm reduction efforts have been shown to be critical in preventing blood borne diseases such as HIV and hepatitis, in reducing overdose deaths, in improving health conditions and in reducing drug-related crime.

Criminalisation of drug use is hampering access to the health and social support services associated with a harm reduction approach. Female drug users, in particular, have received very little support to face their problems. Often abandoned by their families and communities, female drug users require services targeting their specific needs. The enforcement of repressive drug legislation is worsening the harms related to drug use. Meanwhile, large-scale drug traffickers and dealers, the “big fish”, can operate unhindered. The current legal framework and the criminalisation of drug use are fuelling corruption and contributing to the weakening of State institutions and the rule of law.

The Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control has invited Myanmar civil society organisations and several UN agencies to a series of working groups to collect input for a new national drug control strategy. This new strategy together with the pending revision of the national drug legislation are providing an important opportunity to work towards an evidence based response to drug-related problems in Myanmar and to develop appropriate humane responses.

Link to report 'Found in the Dark':

Dr Nang Pann Ei Kham public-health specialist and coordinator of the Drug Policy Advocacy Group and Ernestien Jensema, Project Coordinator Drugs and Democracy, Transnational Institute, The Netherlands.

This OpEd was published in The Citizen (India).