This article was originally published in The Jakarta Post on 23 October 2018

Southeast Asia is characterised by some of the harshest and most repressive approaches to drugs in the world. Have these draconian measures resulted in the desired effect of a reduced drug market? Can ASEAN claim that progress is being made towards the goal of a ‘drug-free’ region?

These are important questions as the end date of the 10-year global drug strategy agreed at the United Nations draws near. Governments are set to meet next March at a high-level UN meeting in Vienna to review progress made over the past decade and define future directions for global drug policy.

If we are to take stock of how countries in Southeast Asia have dealt with drugs over the past decade, the violence meted out by the use of the death penalty and state-sanctioned extrajudicial killings would surely stand out as grim highlights.

Take for example Indonesia. Under the administration of President Joko Widodo, 18 drug offenders were executed between January 2015 and July 2016. While it is positive that there have been no executions in the last two years, there has been a disturbing increase in people killed by law enforcement officers during drug operations. According to LBH Masyarakat, a local NGO that monitors drug policy developments, there were 99 people killed during drug operations in 2017, an alarming increase from 18 such deaths in 2016.

To add to this bloody toll, the war on drugs waged by governments in the region have entailed a rapid rise in arrest and incarceration rates, resulting in prisons being overcrowded by up to 200% in Indonesia and 600% in the Philippines. In addition, abusive measures such as corporal punishment, forced rehabilitation, detention, labour and urine testing are justified as legitimate efforts to reduce drug use.

Like any war, the impacts are felt far and wide, by people who use drugs, people engaged in supply and those alleged to be suspects, but also the wider community. The extremely high levels of women imprisoned for drugs in the region in particular has a knock-on effect on children and family cohesion. There is a growing recognition that women are exploited in the illicit drug trade as couriers and engage in this dangerous work out of economic necessity, desperation or coercion.

Those that are caught face the death penalty or execution in Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia, where sanctions for the simple possession of drugs and the transportation of drugs are disproportionately harsh. Take the examples of Mary Jane Veloso, a poor Filipino woman who was manipulated by a drugs syndicate, and Merry Utami, a former Indonesian migrant worker and victim of domestic violence who was also exploited by the traffickers – both of whom are on death row in Indonesia. These two cases – among many others – highlight how the justice system fails to acknowledge the gender dimension of the drug trade. Overall the burden of punitive drug policies falls predominantly on people who are poor and marginalised.

The war on drugs has persisted for decades without an honest assessment by governments of its consequences and effectiveness, despite UN reports showing ever-increasing, ever-diversifying drug markets year on year. Despite severe zero-tolerance policies in most Southeast Asian countries, the region’s drug market has grown exponentially in the last decade. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has reported a 600% increase in methamphetamine seizures in 10 years, which is primarily an indication of the size of the market rather than improved law enforcement measures, while the heroin market remains comparatively high and stable. The robustness of the drug market reflects high levels of demand and increasing sophistication by drug traffickers, while demonstrating the utter ineffectiveness of waging a costly and damaging drug war.

In the face of this damning evidence, it is unsurprising that governments are reluctant to properly evaluate whether progress has been made towards the global goal of eliminating the illicit drug trade. The inconvenient truth is that drug markets have proved impervious to sustained efforts to reduce demand or supply, while the human cost of repressive policies is far greater than any harm from drugs themselves. Criminalisation fuels stigma against people who use drugs, deters them from seeking treatment and leads to the over-incarceration of minor, non-violent drug offenders. Prohibition perpetuates corruption and violence, and stimulates rather than suppresses illicit drug markets. Further, there is no evidence that the threat of the death penalty deters drug trafficking.

Some governments, notably Portugal, have recognised this and moved away from punishing people for using drugs while ramping up health services. Last week Canada became the second country after Uruguay to legally regulate cannabis for adult recreational use. The winds of change are in the air but Southeast Asia lags behind.

While signs of reform glimmer in countries such as Myanmar and Thailand where drug laws have been amended to pursue health approaches to drug use, and in Malaysia where there is a move to end the use of the death penalty, overall Southeast Asia’s leaders have kept up their rhetoric on zero tolerance and the futile goal of a ‘drug-free’ region.

As an active international player, Indonesia could demonstrate greater leadership by moving away from draconian measures given the evidence that such approaches do not work to curb drug use or supply. Indonesian policy makers should seriously question the blind pursuit of this destructive path.

Next March at the UN, it will be a gross dereliction of duty if governments do not openly acknowledge that there is no progress to speak of towards eliminating the global drug trade, and that repression, incarceration and harsh law enforcement have failed. Continued denial of the inconvenient truth is a worrying recipe for more bloodshed in the increasingly deadly war on drugs in Southeast Asia.


Ann Fordham is the Executive Director of the International Drug Policy Consortium, that has today released Taking stock: A decade of drug policy – A civil society shadow report, which exposes the United Nations 10-year global strategy aimed to eradicate the illegal drug market by 2019 as a spectacular failure and urges a re-think of global drug policy for the next decade.