Laos - located between thriving opium and methamphetamine producers in Myanmar and a reported consumer base of more than two million drug users in China - has sought to limit the impact of drug transit, use and production on its population. But the government’s policies, which harshly penalize drug use, are hampering efforts to treat addiction, say health researchers.

“People who use drugs are treated first and primarily as criminals, with their health needs often not properly addressed with evidence-based interventions,” said Robert Gray, a technical expert on harm reduction for Population Services International (PSI), a nonprofit global health organization headquartered in Washington, DC.

Other countries in the region have begun moving away from compulsory detention for drug users, following advocacy from rights groups and reports of abuses committed in drug detention centres. 

But Lao's eight treatment-and-detention centres still operate based on a 2008 drug law that authorizes involuntary detention for drug users, who are effectively treated as criminals. As required by law, all the country’s drug treatment centres are government-run. 

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Laos’s detention centres for drug users have improved since 2011, when human rights abuses such as beatings and rape were documented by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and by the Open Society Foundations (OSF). 

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