A commentary on a draft bill recently proposed at Parliament

Myanmar is better known for its serious drug problems - including large-scale illicit drugs production and trafficking and high rates of heroin use - than for implementing progressive drug policies that prioritise the health of its population. However, this could change in the near future.

Change is in the air

Myanmar is better known for its serious drug problems - including large-scale illicit drugs production and trafficking and high rates of heroin use - than for implementing progressive drug policies that prioritise the health of its population. However, this could change in the near future. Last year, Police Colonel Myint Aung, head of the International Department of the Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control (CCDAC), commented in an interview that legislative changes were being considered to “make [drug use] a health issue, rather than a criminal one”. More recently, Major General Aung Soe, the military-appointed deputy Minister for Home Affairs, declared to a Member of the Parliament that “prevention and judicial strategies are not enough to solve drug problems,” and that “the economy, social affairs, health and development must [also] be taken into consideration”.

This changing approach to tackling drug issues is reflected in a draft bill that was approved by the upper house of the Parliament (“Amyothar Hluttaw”) on the 16th of August. The text proposes to introduce several amendments to 1993 Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Law and, most notably, to eliminate prison penalties for drug use. In a country where failing to register as a drug user can lead to 3 to 5 years imprisonment, and where up to 74% of all inmates are in prison for – mostly minor – drug-related offences, the step is  significant. However, if Myanmar policy makers really want drug users to be seen as people who need help and support, rather than as merely criminals, it is fundamental that they also extend the exemption from prison penalties to include the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use.

The decriminalisation of drug use has long been advocated for by numerous organisations, including several local and international NGOs and UN Agencies. In February this year, the Drug Policy Advocacy Group – Myanmar (DPAG), a civil society platform, also released a briefing that recommended ending the criminalisation of drug use and increasing access to health, harm reduction and voluntary treatment for drug users, among other interventions. Indeed, extensive evidence from around the world shows that, while the fear of prison penalties is not an effective deterrent against drug use, it does have a substantial negative impact on the health of drug users and the community at large.

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