The recent publication of two single pieces of legislation - the amended 1993 Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Law and the first National Drug Control Policy - is likely to form the basis of Myanmar’s drug policy for several years to come. What does it mean for the country’s transition towards an evidence-based approach to drug control, and how can the gaps between the two documents be addressed?

A dual reform process

Myanmar has moved a step closer to completing the first reform in decades of its legal framework relating to drugs. Indeed, the recent publication of two single pieces of legislation is likely to form the basis of the country’s approach to drug control for at least several years to come. The first piece is the amended version of the 1993 Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Law (hereafter referred to as “the Law” or “the Drug Law”), which was enacted by the Union Parliament (“Pyidaungsu Hluttaw”) on 14 February 2018. The second, released less than a week later, is the country’s first National Drug Control Policy (hereafter “the Policy”), developed by the Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control (CCDAC) with support from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). This evolving legal and policy framework is a clear sign that the Government has acknowledged the shortcomings of the previous strategy, which was primarily based on the use of repressive measures. The military-appointed Minister for Home Affairs, Lieutenant General Kyaw Swe, thus recognised that “the past approach was very focused on supply reduction and less on other issues, and as a result did not achieve everything we had planned”.

The almost simultaneous release of these two key documents - the National Drug Control Policy and the amended 1993 Drug Law - would suggest that they were developed in the framework of a coordinated reform process aiming at aligning their contents and defining a comprehensive strategy towards the achievement of similar objectives. However, the Law and the Policy differ significantly, and even establish contradictory or incompatible priorities. While the National Drug Control Policy clearly places the focus on public health and development, the amended Drug Law continues to heavily lean on criminal justice and still prescribes extremely harsh prison penalties for both drug users (when caught with small quantities of drugs for their own use) and small-scale subsistence poppy farmers.

These differing choices are symptomatic of tensions between two different models of drug control: one based on repression, effectively a continuation of the current mainstream policies, and one that promotes a change of paradigm and is based on public health, human rights and development. This situation also highlights how different governmental bodies across the executive and the legislative branches can have significantly different stances on drug policy, and how this can impact the overall coherence of the government’s approach.

Myanmar National Drug Control Policy: a key strategic document

The Government of Myanmar released, on 20 February 2018, its very first National Drug Control Policy. The Policy was developed by the CCDAC, with support from UNODC. An extensive consultation process enabled the participation of various Ministries and other Governmental bodies, civil society organisations, UN Agencies, and representatives from affected communities. This collaborative effort resulted in a document that defines the key features and priorities of the Government’s new strategy to tackle drug-related problems in the country. Undoubtedly, the new Policy constitutes a major shift towards a more comprehensive and evidence-based approach. In fact, large sections emphasise the urgent need to develop public health interventions for drug users and rural development programmes in opium growing areas, but also to ensure respect for human rights and to refocus law enforcement and criminal justice efforts towards combating organised crime and corruption.