Have draconian measures such as extrajudicial killings, the death penalty for drug offences, compulsory detention for people who use drugs and, in some cases, corporal punishment meted out by caning, achieved the stated goal of reducing drug demand and supply in the region? Can countries in Asia claim progress is being made towards the goal of a “drug-free” region?
Over the past decade, the use of drugs, along with its associated health risks and deaths, have surged in Asia. The UN reports an almost 100 per cent increase from 2011 to 2018 in the use of amphetamines. The rates of prevalence of HIV, viral hepatitis and tuberculosis among people who inject drugs in Asia remain disproportionately high compared with other regions of the world, and have seen no overall decrease since 2009. Although the reported number of drug-related deaths has fallen from 104,116 in 2011 to 66,100 in 2016, it is important to note that data on drug-related mortality remains scarce and of poor quality, with no systematic reporting of overdose deaths in any country in the region.
Many others have died from targeted killings, including during law enforcement operations, numbering up to 20,000 in the Philippines
alone since President Rodrigo Duterte’s declaration of a war on people who use drugs and trafficking, in 2016. Although on a lesser scale, the number of people killed in drug enforcement operations has also risen sharply in Indonesia (99 people in 2017, an alarming increase from 16 such deaths in 2016), as well as in Bangladesh (over 400 people killed since May 2018). In addition, almost half of the countries worldwide that retain the death penalty for drug offences are in Asia (16 out of 33), with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Philippines taking steps to re-institute or expand its use.
If people are not killed for engaging in drug-related activities, many of them are locked up in overcrowded prisons, detention facilities and so-called “drug rehabilitation centres”. Where data is available, it shows that many people in prison are held for non-violent drug offences, for example in Indonesia (58 per cent), Thailand (72 per cent) and the Philippines (58 per cent). This proportion is often greater for women, including in Thailand where over 80 per cent of women in prison are incarcerated for a drug offence. Despite years of Asian governments claiming a shift towards a health approach to drug use, over 450,000 people are currently being held in compulsory detention centres in China, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Laos, Singapore and Thailand.
As in any war, the impacts of repressive drug policies in Asia are felt far and wide, not only by people who use drugs and people engaged in supply, but also their families and the wider community. In particular, the high level of women imprisoned for drug offences has damaging effects on their children and family cohesion. There is a growing recognition that women are exploited in the illicit drug trade as couriers and do so out of economic necessity, desperation or coercion, and are therefore expendable – making it apparent that imprisonment and harsh punishment cannot suppress the driving factors behind ever-expanding drug markets.
In the face of this damning report card on drug policies, it is not surprising that governments are reluctant to openly evaluate whether progress has been made towards regional and global goals of eliminating the illicit drug trade. The truth they must confront is that drug markets have proved impervious to sustained efforts to reduce demand or supply, while the human cost of brutally punitive policies is far greater than any harm from drugs themselves.
This March, at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, it will be a serious neglect of duty if Asian governments do not openly acknowledge that violent law enforcement strategies and harsh punishments have failed, not only to achieve the stated policy objectives but also to establish evidence-based responses to drug use that save lives. Continued denial of this truth is a worrying recipe for more lives lost in the increasingly deadly war on drugs across Asia.