Side event: South East Asia: Prospects for humane and effective drug policies

Organised by the International Drug Policy Consortium, NoBox Transitions Foundation, SCDI Vietnam and Rumah Cemara. 

Ann Fordham, IDPC: You probably hear a lot of news about the situation in South East Asia at the moment, particularly in the Philippines and the use of extrajudicial killings and the so-called voluntary surrenders of people who use drugs. Advocates and colleagues in the region express concern about these developments. There have been times in the history of this region where similarly punitive responses have been implemented. There are also positive trends, where positive reforms are a source of hope: Myanmar, Thailand. In this session, we’ll be talking about what we could do to implement harm reduction-friendly and humane policies in the region.

Nguyen Minh Trang, SCDI: Important to discuss the legal basis for drug-related policies. Vietnam has, since 1995, developed a legal framework to address HIV/Aids-related challenges. The Law on HIV(AIDS Prevention and Control (2006) and Decree Nº108/2007 aims to protect the rights of PLHIV and provides for MMT and NSP. In 2012, a revision of the response to the epidemic noted progress in the involvement of the community (incl. peer outreach workers) and overall positive effects of a health-orientated response. The Law for Handling Administrative Violations in Disease Prevention, HIV prevention and Control officially decriminalised consumption for personal use; but the use of compulsory treatment centres is provided for. In 2013, the Government endorsed a “Renovation Plan” where addiction is recognised as a chronic, relapsing condition. And it seeks to transform compulsory centres into voluntary community-based treatment sites by 2020. In terms of outcomes: NSP reaches all provinces; MMT reaches 57/61 provinces and involves 33,379 patients (54.39% of the official objective); community-based organisations (54 of them) are progressively taken into account when developing the HIV and public security response; 30 CCDUs have been closed; HIV infections have reduced (clear reduction since the beginning of the 2000s among people who inject drugs). SCDI is implementing community-based treatment and the results have been very positive. We appreciate the government providing a legally conducive environment. There are challenges, but overall we feel we are on the right track.

Ricky Gunawan, LBH Masyarakat: I am going to focus on the positive developments in Indonesia. In difficult situations, important to highlight opportunities, encourage hope. A Supreme Court Circular Decree (4/2010) created a framework for people to access alternatives to incarceration for people who use drugs and who are caught in position of less than a certain threshold (1g methamphetamine, 1.8g heroin, 5g cannabis) and not involved in trafficking. Problematic because having drugs means “involvement” for some. A review of the judicial proceedings showed that only 5% met all of the criteria of the Circular Decree. 71% of those who met all the criteria went to rehab. If we look at all the court decisions, however; for all of those under the possession threshold, only 8% went to rehab in 2014. What facilitated access to treatment? Access to legal defence and a medical assessment are the major contributing factors. Lessons? It is an imperfect decree but it’s a platform to improve. We need to work with lawyers because many do not want to work defending people who use drugs because of the stigma.

Ma Inez Feria, NoBox Transitions: The new government, in the pursuit of a drug-free world, have cracked down on people who use drugs and suspected offenders. More than 8,000 people have been killed by the campaign “against drugs”. The situation is dire, for the families and communities of these people. We have reports that the number of people imprisoned for drug-related offences have doubled, and over half of that population is imprisoned for drug possession. Nothing is more powerful than the human experience. A growing number of people have an experience of loss, and people are asking questions about the “colateral damage” and what to do if we were to now abandon the “war on drugs”. We have engaged with communities to share with them that we should not be stuck in a binary discussion regarding drugs. It’s not just “good” or “bad”. Showing that there are options. That we need a coordinated response to treatment and care. Many people who “surrendered” are now in a legal limbo, essentially imprisoned in inadequate facilities. We have worked with local communities to speak up and coordinate action. We have worked with some government institutions and decision-makers that understand that a public health response is necessary for drug policy; that criminalising people does not solve our challenges. There’s a bill on harm reduction programmes and the HIV response currently in Parliament. We are also working in developing research to provide data that can help us build alternative responses. There’s also a challenge in terms of what to invest in. International support is vital in addressing an existing gap. Harm reduction has never been more necessary in the Philippines. We need to look at people who use drugs as people. It’s not about taking sides, it’s about putting the meat on what we keep on talking about. Keeping “welfare and humankind” at the core of our drug control responses. It’s not about the drugs, it’s about the people.


Question 1 – Daniel Wolfe, OSF: Each of your countries have expressed reluctance to international opinions about their domestic policies. What do you think is the role of the international community?

Ricky Gunawan: There is a role to continue supporting progress. Within the Narcotics Board, some people are supportive of community-based treatment. But there are hindrances in the legislative side. “Harm reduction” as a term is still not accepted. Perhaps the international community should focus on supporting community-based treatment. Support judicial reform programmes. We need a non-corrupt judicial system, which allows for substantial access to justice.

Nguyen Minh Trang: Compulsory detention centres are still the first choice for drug offences. The OHCHR denounced them and many donors threatened with stopping support. The Global Fund stopped financial support. The government of Vietnam reconsidered as a result. So governments sometimes do value the opinion of the international community.

Ma. Inez Feria: We need to support evidence gathering and data. We need resources to do so.

Lee Yarcia: Important for the international community to remind Philippine decision-makers of technical guidance, standards and international obligations; and to provide technical support.


Question 2 – DRCNet : Do lawyers have the same aversion, in Indonesia, to defending drug offences when the defendant has money and power?

Ricky Gunawan: We do struggle with corruption.


Question 3 – DRCNet: What about the role of the Catholic Church?

Ma Inez Feria: They have vehemently spoken against the death penalty. Churches have become a bit of a sanctuary to some people obliged to report as users, or whose families have shunned.

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