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In Asean, drug policies undermine social cohesion

National Anti-Doping Institution officials pose for a photograph after arresting three suspects in a drug bust last month in Phnom Penh.
National Anti-Doping Institution officials pose for a photograph after arresting three suspects in a drug bust last month in Phnom Penh. Photo supplied

In Asean, drug policies undermine social cohesion

By Ruth Dreifuss, Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Olusegun Obasanjo

With regional and international heads of state gathering in Manila, the Philippines, for the 31st Asean Summit, which kicks off Friday and runs through Tuesday, it seems appropriate to examine whether or not there are more effective drug policies than those currently at play in dealing with the harms caused by the presence of drugs in society.

As former heads of state from Africa, Europe and Latin America, we recognise 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 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 several countries, traditional uses of some drugs such as cannabis, opium or kratom were tolerated. 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.

Dehumanising people cannot result in cohesive societies or empowered communities
This objective has not been achieved. The vision for a “drug-free Asean by 2015” did not materialise for the most part 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 consume drugs are no more dissuasive in curbing drug use than more proportionate sentencing. Furthermore, harsh penalties for nonviolent drug offences dehumanise people who use drugs and undermine the dignity not only of those convicted but also of 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 any 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. Indeed, Cambodia initiated a crackdown in January this year 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 health care services they need.

Worst outcomes: the death penalty for drug-related offences
With the extrajudicial killings taking place in the Philippines making global headlines, the government is also seeking to reintroduce the death penalty for drug-related offences. This is a degrading and inhumane penalty, which has proved 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 offences can in no way be equated with serious crimes such as murder.

Asean: common framework, two diverging directions
There is reason to hope for more people-centred reforms. Thailand is considering alternatives to punishment for low-level actors in the drug trade, shifting its policy paradigm towards a public health approach. Myanmar is also reviewing its drug law, removing lengthy prison sentences for people who use drugs and replacing them by prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and care.

It is, however, 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.

What next?
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 nevertheless the concern of all citizens, their representatives in parliament and their civil society movements.

All parties should ask whether 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.

Ruth Dreifuss is the former president of Switzerland. Fernando Henrique Cardoso is the former president of Brazil. Olusegun Obasanjo is the former president of Nigeria. They are members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy.

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