Side event: Myanmar drug policy reform and civil society perspective

Organized by the Government of Myanmar and the Transnational Institute

Ernestien Jensema, Transnational Institute (Chair): Welcome.

Pol. Brig. Gen Win Naing, CCDAC “Strategic priorities of the National Drug Control Policy”: I will talk about the national drug control strategy and the policy of Myanmar. With reference to the UNGASS 2016 outcome document, we developed the national drug control policy. The aim of the policy is to help ensure safe and secure society of Myanmar. Based on this policy we developed a national strategic plan. The plan is based on 5 key priority areas of the policy. In collaboration with different sectors of the state and regional governments and also with the NGOs and CSOs we also discussed about the strategies for the national drug policy. (Photos were shown of the workshops held, as part of the PPT presentation) There have been different consultation meetings and a series of meeting we have developed to draft the national drug policy. To get approval of the strategy we had to discuss it with the Attorney General Office, national security committee and the President’s Office. There will be a launch of the strategy in two weeks time. There are 5 chapters in the national drug control strategy. The main objective of the strategy is that in relation to Myanmar’s current drug problem, a strategic plan based upon the health and human rights objectives will be pursued. There are 5 key priorities in section 2 including supply and harm reduction. Section 3 contains the framework of the national drug control strategy which itself comprises 5 policies. Section 4 is the framework of the advisory inspection. Section 5 is the conclusion which states that the duration of the strategy is 5 years of implementation with monitoring and evaluation as well. After the national strategy is launched we will produce an action plan. The strategic plan is from 2020 – 2024 and the action plan will be a 2 year plan, which will be developed by state and regional governments.

Nang Pann Ei Kham, DPAG, “Reducing drug problems in Myanmar: From legal reform to changes on the ground”: I will present about the drug policy reform and legal reforms, and gaps and challenges on the ground, in Myanmar from a civil society perspective. DPAG is a group of like-minded organisations, a coalition promoting health-based drug policies in Myanmar. Being situated in the Golden Triangle, Myanmar is known for poppy cultivation and opium production, though it has declined and we have become the world’s third largest opium producer. However there has been increased production and export of amphetamine type stimulants. There are high levels of problematic trends with injecting use of heroin, including high rates of HIV prevalence (34% of people who inject drugs). The legal framework imposes strict control of illicit substances as the top goal of the Myanmar. It emphasized lengthy prison sentences for small drug offences, under the 1993 Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, which has led to overcrowding in prisons. The drug law reform process, involving revision of the 1993 law, started in 2010 with the goal of shifting from punishment towards more health focused approaches, and finding “alternatives to imprisonment.” It has been a lengthy process, as the draft was only presented in 2017 and revisions adopted in 2018. The new 1993 law included as the most significant change, the removal of penalties for consumption of drugs, ie. the elimination of 3 – 5 years imprisonment for failing to register to undertake medical treatment. However possession of any quantity remains a criminal offence. On 20 February 2018, the country’s first national drug control policy was released. The process of consultations felt like a mini-CoW process, The new policy aims to “build safe and healthy communities by minimizing health, social and economic harm”. There are 5 key areas including harm reduction. The new law established contradictory priorities with the new policy. It still prescribes heavy prison penalties for drug users caught in possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use, farmers cultivating poppy for their subsistence. Removal of the exemption for possession of drugs for personal use by the decision makers undermines the Bill’s objective to shift away from criminal justice approaches. Other contradictory approaches is the presidential campaign that started in June 2018 when the President’s office launched a complaints programme where people can report people suspected of drug-related crimes. In conclusion, the reform of Myanmar’s drug legal framework is a staged process and we will have a long way to go. Collaboration between various stakeholders is essential to achieve the aims of the new drug policy.

Ernst Wisse, Medecins du Monde “Drug law and policy reform in Myanmar MdM is an international NGO and we have worked in Kachin for over 20 years now. Nunu Lwin will give the presentation by way of a recording. It is so exciting to sit next to police today without feeling like I have to run out of the room.

Nunu Lwin recording: Criminalization and police raids lead to obstacles to carrying out harm reduction services, decrease community involved in the programme activities and make it difficult for people who use drugs to access harm reduction services. Some of our peer educators have been arrested in 2018 and 2019 for small quantities of drugs in their possession, which was for their personal use. We could not afford better legal representation and one of the educators was given a 5 year imprisonment sentence. These occurrences can demotivate the members of community in carrying out their activities.  They are often well known in their communities and give their lives in service of others. Criminalisation increase stigma and discrimination, which increase risk behaviors and practices, e.g. needle and other equipment sharing, and cases of overdoses. Compared with previous years, the cases of overdose have been increasing. In our programmes, the numbers of dropouts from our harm reduction programmes are gradually increasing. In Myanmar we have a lot of harm reduction programmes but the services are not enough in accordance with the numbers of people in the population. The use of forced rehabilitation camps and forced detox camps have been noted in Kachin state. Some are run by faith-based organisations, and some are organised by local people with the use of traditional medicines. There is a belief that use of some traditional medicines are effective, and can cure anything so that it is not necessary to take other medicines – this can be misleading and lead to negative health consequences. Most programmes do not offer medicines and can involve abusive practices such as unlawful incarceration. Many people coming back from these camps finally relapse. This year is an election year in Myanmar, and so it is becoming more and more difficult to talk about drug policies. Our recommendations include: release rules and regulations of amended drug law with the following propositions, transform compulsory treatment into voluntary treatment, define the amounts for drug possession under the law, respect and fulfil human rights, involve peers.

Ernst: to add another recommendation, Kachin should be included in activities because drug use is quite high there.

Sai Lone, Myanmar Opium Farmers Forum “Towards a development first approach to address illicit poppy cultivation in Myanmar”: Although we don’t have evidence recorded, believe that opium cultivation moved from China to Myanmar in the early 19th century to supply demand in China. Cultivation increased from the 1950s, shifted from opium to heroin in the 1960s due to actions of CIA, reached 163,000 hectares in the highest recorded levels of cultivation in 1996, then fell to 21,600 hectares in 2006 following the UWSA ban in 2005, and then 33,100 hectares in 2019. Now Mexico has taken over us as the second highest cultivator of opium in the world. Why do farmers grow opium? Those in high elevation and extreme climate areas can afford to buy food, they live in isolated areas with poor infrastructure, with limited public service and development support, in areas of armed conflicts with limited viable cash crops. It is also used as a traditional medicine. Despite aerial spraying having been used, cultivation continues so eradication has not worked. Eradication efforts also remove the livelihood solution for people living in that area, and increases and changes the cultivation pattern. There used to be two seasons for cultivation, but now there are three seasons due to eradication efforts – so such efforts are counterproductive.  There is no simple solution to a complex problem. Complex problems require creative solutions. We propose that no plant should be regarded as a drug, and stop criminalising farmers. We should take a development first approach with the right sequencing adopted in development initiatives. Agricultural interventions alone is not enough, eg. the UNODC’s coffee project is not enough on its own. There needs to be market acces and non-agriculture income opportunities, taking a holistic approach to address the socio-economic, cultural and political factors. There needs to be collaboration between development partners, civil society, farmers like us and the government. We should also consider licit cultivation for the pharmaceutical industry, it should not be excluded as an alternative option because opium can be used in essential pain relief medications. The cultural use and traditional medical values of opium should be recognized, and farmers should be involved in decision making. I conclude my presentation with a picture of this (a poppy flower). Addressing opium cultivation may be difficult but it is not impossible.

Ernestien (Chair): you could introduce the farmers forum, Sai Lone.

Sai Lone: you might think it is strange for an opium farmer to sit here alongside law enforcement, but we need to work together with members of parliament and the government – they do listen to us, our opium farmers forum. The objective of the forum is to come together to discuss how to solve their problems and to raise their voice. We also discuss options for making a living without growing opium. We also work with other NGOs.

Question from a representative of ONCB Thailand: you might know that in Thailand, we used alternative development programmes to solve the issue with cultivation of opium and it has worked quite well. You mentioned the UNODC project on growing coffee and you say it is not enough. What do you think is needed in addition?

Sai Lone: Actually I used to manage that UNODC project. Coffee is a long term crop, you have to wait 4 – 6 years to get a profit. The harvest is in the 4th year but the income wont be received until the 6th year. Opium farmers are poor, they need money. So if they plant today it is better for them to receive the profits tomorrow. If they cannot they have to borrow money. That is why not many farmers can participate in that programme. The one implemented by the Thai government, especially the Doitung project, you need to combine the short term with the long term programmes, and also incorporate education programmes. There should not be only one crop that is the focus of alternative development programme.

Dr Nanda, Ministry of Health, Myanmar: I want to clarify a point made in the MdM presentation. The rehab programmes mentioned is only in one part of the country, not everywhere. In harm reduction, there are many NGOs working on this. We should consider why improvements are not happening. NGOs such as MdM can look into advocacy strategies they can pursue, eg. in collaboration with other harm reduction NGOs such as AHRN.

Ernst, MdM: if I can respond, I agree, Nunu is referring to some community-based programmes. On your second point, we do work in collaboration with other groups but the long-term objective is to see changes incorporated into the national laws and policies.

Representative of Kenya: I have followed the reform processes in a number of countries this week, eg. in Norway as well. I am concerned that possession is still criminalised because then how can people who use drugs avoid criminalisation?

Representative of Myanmar: everybody is talking about possession. If some countries identify how many drugs are in their possession, we are also thinking about this. How much of possession, for what type of drugs, can be defined for personal use? For law enforcement, this is very difficult. For example in the Netherlands, cannabis can be purchased and used but who is the supplier? With the new drug policy we do think about this, but it is very difficult for the law enforcement officer.

Pann Ei: when we participated in the consultations on the revisions of the drug law, the quantities relating to possession was discussed and proposed but the parliamentary committee took it out because they thought it would constitute legalisation. Our lesson was that we needed to educate the parliamentary committee about this beforehand.

Representative of Myanmar: which country has defined quantities for possession?

Caitlin Hughes: Australia has set some quantities. Brendan Hughes and I have prepared some guidance on this and I can forward it on, to help decide how to set the quantities.

Ernestien: Thank you and we will conclude the event

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