By Jacob Goldberg / New Naratif

In early 2017, Myanmar police raided a house in Yangon’s Thaketa township with a warrant to search for drugs. Underneath a Buddhist altar, they found 10 tablets of yaba—a stimulant containing methamphetamine and caffeine. Three housemates, one of whom was the target of the warrant, were arrested and charged under two sections of Myanmar’s 1993 drug law: Section 15, for failure to register as drug users, and Section 16(c), for possession of illegal drugs.

At the time of the raid, a fourth person was in the house: a woman in her 20s who had been hired to come over and style the housemates’ hair. She was also arrested, and when police tested her urine, they found the presence of drugs in her system. Despite having no drugs on her, no prior criminal record, and no apparent connection to the drugs found in the house, she was slapped with the same charges. In early 2018, a judge sentenced all four defendants to 10 years’ imprisonment with hard labour—four for failure to register, and six years for possessing a stash of pills worth less than US$4.

“It was a conviction and a sentence that we were very, very aghast at,” says Sam Roberts, an American public defender who assisted with the hairdresser’s defence as a fellow for the International Legal Fund in Yangon.

To Roberts, the judge’s decision highlights the misguidedness of Myanmar’s brutal approach to drug control—an approach that treats drug users as criminals and funnels them into prisons by the thousands. Myanmar’s criminalisation of drug use, even personal use with no intent to sell, has deterred all but 3% of an estimated 300,000 drug users from seeking medical treatment. It’s also failed to bring down rates of dependency, disease transmission, and overdose. At least 50% of the country’s inmates are serving sentences for low-level drug offences.

“You are criminalising what’s essentially non-violent, ultimately non-criminal, addictive conduct that’s consistent with illness rather than bad intent, and you’re taking a lot of young people and putting them in prison for a long time,” Roberts says.

“This is crippling communities, families, and society as a whole.”