For the purposes of IDPC’s regional work, East and South East Asia includes: Cambodia, China, Mongolia, Indonesia, Japan, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, North Korea, Philippines, Brunei, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.
Overall estimates of increased production of opium, amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) and new psychoactive substances (NPS) dominate UNODC reports on regional trends. Indeed, there has been a slow and steady increase in opium production in parts of the Golden Triangle (Myanmar, Lao PDR, Thailand) after a decade of stark reduction, and production has climbed back to its highest output levels since 2003. While still dwarfed by Afghan production levels, opium continues to be cultivated in the Golden Triangle as a means to ensure food security among rural communities, in particular in Myanmar. The region remains a major world centre for ATS production, which continues to grow in order to supply global demand. Myanmar remains the largest supplier of methamphetamine pills as political instability continues in its eastern Shan state. The presence of advanced chemical and pharmaceutical industries, particularly in China, may help explain how the region has become the largest provider of NPS at the global level.
Opium and ATS trafficking from Myanmar extends north towards the Chinese consumption market, and is supplemented globally through Lao PDR, Thailand, and Cambodia providing air and sea ports of transit. Opiate demand in the region is mostly met by Afghan and Myanmar production. East and South East Asia makes up a significant share of the global methamphetamine market, with high seizures reported in China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand (read more). ATS and NPS are also trafficked from China into other countries in the region, with Indonesia providing one of the largest and most profitable markets after China. Likewise, southern Chinese provinces also present a crucial transit area for the distribution of precursor chemicals across the region and beyond, reaching as far as Latin America. Organised criminal groups from West Africa and Iran are rising in prominence in the trafficking of precursor chemicals and the introduction of cocaine into the region (read more). The increased seizure of crystal methamphetamine complements the above trends indicating a diversification of the drug market.
There continue to be few reliable estimates on consumption. Opiates, mainly heroin, are believed to be the most prevalent drugs consumed in China, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Vietnam though it is likely declining. ATS consumption, particularly methamphetamine, continues to grow throughout the region and remains the most popular drugs in Thailand, Cambodia, Lao PDR, the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea. Data on cannabis consumption is scarce although it represents the most prevalent drug consumed in Indonesia (read more). Based on reported drug seizures and arrests, the UNODC Global SMART Programme (both in its 2012 report on ATS and 2013 report on NPS) has reported growing rates of ATS and NPS consumption. However, the fact that ketamine and kratom (two substances which the World Health Organisation has recommended not to schedule, and which are widely used in the region) are included in the list of NPS by the Global SMART Programme may be misleading in terms of understanding harmful consumption patterns, policy priorities, and recommendations for the region (read more). Overall, national and regional data suggest an increase and diversification in drug consumption of all substances (World Drug Report 2013).
Regional Drug Policies
Despite the lack of legally binding mechanisms, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has played a central role in promoting a zero-tolerance approach towards drugs in Southeast Asia. As a consequence, evidence-based harm reduction and treatment services for people who use drugs and the promotion of alternative development programmes in the region have suffered from ASEAN’s misguided policy focus. The ASEAN drug-free target by 2015 has led to the intensification of ineffective law enforcement approaches with severe consequences on economic, health, and social issues, as well as jeopardizing the safeguarding of human rights (read more, and here).
The expanded frameworks of ASEAN+3 (which includes China, South Korea, and Japan) and the East Asia Summit have also failed to acknowledge current policy limitations and harmful consequences. The “one-size-fits-all” approach of both frameworks has prioritised zero-tolerance political and security cooperation on drugs, disregarding the impact that these policies may have on the lives of millions of people in the region.
Disproportionate penalties for drugs offences
The prevalence of harsh, disproportionate penalties for drugs offences in the region are accompanied by severe and blatant violations of human rights justified through national legal systems across the region. Indiscriminate criminal sanctions have also led to the overcrowding of prison facilities across the region. Fear of detection and arrest has exacerbated the propagation of the HIV and hepatitis epidemics among people who inject drugs. Indonesia with 36% and Myanmar and Thailand with 22% present the highest ratio of HIV prevalence among people who inject drugs. China’s 6% may appear small in comparison, yet representing 135,000 people, it surpasses the total amount of people in Indonesia and Thailand who inject drugs (read more).
In addition, despite calls by the UN and human rights activists for the abolition of the death penalty, more than half of the countries in the region allow its use for drug offences with appallingly high levels of executions in China, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam (read more, and here). Indonesia continues to apply the death penalty for drug offences while in Thailand, South Korea, Myanmar, and Lao PDR, it remains enshrined in national laws but is not currently used. A recent ruling on a drug possession offence in an Indonesian appeals court illustrates this worrisome paradigm when stating that “such measures (death penalty) are not contradictory but rather justified and suggested by the (drug control) Conventions”.
Cruel and inhumane punishment in the name of “treatment”
Although some governments are making efforts to move away from these practices, compulsory detention centres for drug users (CCDUs) are a serious concern for national activists and the international community, not least due to their adverse effects on people who use drugs. CCDUs remain widespread in places such as Thailand, China, Cambodia, Nepal, Vietnam, and Malaysia. In Singapore, the courts declared that: “the Singaporean Constitution does not contain any express prohibition against inhuman punishment”, these military-style camps forgo fundamental legal and human rights, while at the same time deny life-saving access to appropriate health facilities. This pervasive mechanism has perpetuated abuses of authority by public officials and exacerbated the spread of HIV in South East Asia. A further, appalling example is found in the judicial corporal punishment of caning and lashing utilised against people found in possession of small amounts of drugs in Singapore and Malaysia.
The spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C in China, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Thailand amongst people who inject drugs has long surpassed epidemic proportions. Such estimates have reached 36% for HIV and 77% for Hepatitis C among people who inject drugs in Indonesia, and 22% for HIV and 90% for Hepatitis C in Thailand. The prevalence of these high rates have led some governments in the region to start implementing harm reduction measures such as opioid substitution therapy (OST) and needle and syringe exchange programmes (NSP), in order to reduce these high levels of infection. This being said, international funding remains essential for the functioning of harm reduction programmes in East and South East Asia. This is in great part to the considerable barriers that legal and policy frameworks impose on the efficient functioning of harm-reduction initiatives. Political willingness to debate on these policies has also been a strong obstacle. Despite chronic underfunding, harm reduction initiatives have been instrumental for reducing infection rates in South-East Asia. Malaysia has been amongst the most progressive nations as it has attempted, with limited resources, to make these evidence-based services more accessible for people who use drugs. Civil society plays a pivotal role in the continuous support for the implementation of NSPs and expansion of OST facilities. China has increased their NSP facilities to a national total of 900 in the past two years, partially as a response to observed decreases in the percentage of people who inject drugs infected with HIV falling from 9.3% in 2009 to 6.4% in 2011. Vietnam is also implementing such programmes in order to tackle HIV infections among people who use drugs.
On the other hand, countries like Japan, South Korea, and Singapore continue to disregard harm reduction measures both at the national and international level, prompting the reaction of civil society against their unfounded claims against harm reduction approaches.
Drug trafficking and law enforcement
The closure of illicit drug manufacturing facilities and seizures of drugs remain at comparatively high levels throughout the region as legal deterrents and tough law enforcement remain unable to tackle the incentives for the illicit production of drugs. China’s size and increasing activity in economic trade pose a particular challenge for law enforcement agencies, which are unable to fully cope with the movement of goods from and within their territory. Likewise, increased enforcement efforts targeting both suppliers and people who use drugs have boosted arrests across the region.
Crop eradication and alternative development programmes
The destruction of crops destined for the illicit drug market remains a widely spread practice despite the socio-economic, health and environmental costs associated with it (Read more, here, and here). Myanmar has provided a prime example of the destruction of crops and the lack of results of this methodology. Several governments in the region have turned to alternative policies to tackle drug production. Alternative development programmes have now been implemented successfully in Thailand and through micro-projects in Lao PDR and Myanmar (Read more, here, and here). However, current political support for a development-led approach in the region and international financial support for alternative development programmes is still insufficient. A recent South-East Asian forum of growers of illicit crops has opened a ground-breaking opportunity for meaningful dialogue on positive alternatives to current policies.
Transnational organised crime (TOC) remains a central issue, particularly in relation to growing commercial flows, testing regulatory and institutional strengths. ASEAN has expanded its agenda on TOC as a result of the growing influence of these groups. For example, law enforcement interventions in the Mekong River have recently increased in response to the escalating violence associated with smuggling in the Golden Triangle. As expected, evidence shows that violent law enforcement is likely to contribute to increased drug market-related violence and regional instability, in particular in Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia (read more, and here).
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