Has the decade-old war on drugs in Asia succeeded?

Data shows that brutal anti-drug policies have failed to curb drug trade and use across Asia.

Phil. war on drugs Reuters
President Rodrigo Duterte's bloody crusade against drugs has taken 27,000 lives and counting in the Philippines [File: Czar Dancel/Reuters]

The war on drugs in Asia has been going on for over a decade now. From death penalties for drug offenders in China to the bloody security crackdown in the Philippines, which has claimed 27,000 lives so far, countries in the region continue fighting drugs with brutal measures.

Next month the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs will convene in Vienna to evaluate progress on countering the drug problem across the world. When officials sit down for discussions, they should not shy away from asking the tough questions. 

Has the war on drugs moved Asia any closer to achieving the elusive drug-free society? Has it effectively eliminated or significantly reduced illicit drug markets? And has it advanced UN’s overarching goals of advancing health, human rights, public security and sustainable development?

Recent research shows that the answer to these three questions is a resounding no. In fact, data demonstrates that the war on drugs waged by countries across Asia has proven to be a devastating failure.

Brutal policies are failing

Current approaches to drug control in Asia overwhelmingly criminalise people already on the margins of society, those who use or are dependent on drugs, with dire consequences for them, their families and communities.

Among the harshest penalties imposed in the name of the “war on drugs” is the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking. In the past decade, more than 3,940 people globally were executed for drug offences. Half of all countries worldwide that impose capital punishment for drug crimes are in Asia.

Then, there is the surge in extrajudicial killings of individuals accused and suspected of using or selling drugs, a grave human rights violation promoted by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, which now seems to be spreading across the region. During a visit to the Philippines earlier this month, Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena praised the country’s state-sanctioned massacre as “an example to the world” and vowed to bring back the death penalty for drug offenders. In May 2018, Bangladesh launched a Philippine-style “war on drugs” which resulted in more than 100 deaths and 12,000 drug arrests in its first 15 days. 

Several countries in Asia, including Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore, still condone caning, whipping, lashing or flogging for people accused of drug use, including children. Even if corporal punishment is banned, individuals caught using drugs continue to be treated like criminals in many places across Asia.

Instead of being offered drug dependence treatment, harm reduction, counselling and other psychosocial support services, suspected drug users often face forced urine testing, mandatory registration with law enforcement authorities, imprisonment and detention.

In the Philippines, students undergo mandatory drug testing at a great cost to an under-funded educational system. Drug offenders make up to 50-70 percent of total prison populations in Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar, clogging prisons that are already above capacity. In Thailand, a staggering 80 percent of the 47,000 women in prison are incarcerated on a drug offence, usually a non-violent one, like possession or personal use.

Not content with locking up people who use drugs in prisons, many governments also detain them in the name of treatment and rehabilitation. In the 1990s, China launched its “war on drugs” and opened such detention facilities to imprison drug users who were deemed threatening to national security or public order in order to “re-educate” them through forced labour. 

Despite being widely condemned by UN agencies, academics and civil society for employing forced labour, torture and other abuses of human rights, such facilities remain prevalent in Cambodia, China, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam; as of 2014, 450,000 people were being held in such centres. 

Meanwhile, provision of effective, voluntary and evidence-based healthcare for drug users in Asia lags behind the rest of the world. Drug treatment quality is inconsistent. In India and Nepal, allegations of abuse, torture, death and lack of access to treatment for drug dependence at private drug treatment centres abound.

On top of these various failures, politicians in the region have increasingly started using the drug problem for political gains. This has eroded democratic institutions, promoted corruption and normalised stigma and discrimination against people who use drugs. In the Philippines, for instance, the so-called “drug menace” has been invoked to justify authoritarian measures, weaken civilian authority, and imprison critics such as Senator Leila de Lima, an outspoken opponent of Duterte’s drug war. 

So have these brutal anti-drug campaigns at least achieved their stated goal of reducing drug markets? 

Data released by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime shows that this is not the case. Despite costly eradication efforts, illicit plant cultivation has persisted in most areas, increased – in places like Myanmar – or even skyrocketed – in Afghanistan. Drug use levels have also remained high or even increased. It is estimated that in Asia some 17 million people use amphetamines. In Southeast Asia, in particular, amphetamines and ecstasy have been identified as an increasingly worrying problem by local authorities, but no reliable data on use is available. 

There has also been a significant increase in seizures of methamphetamine tablets and cannabis in the region between 2008 and 2015. This, however, does not point to effective interdiction efforts, but to the continued expansion and dynamism of the illicit drug market, despite tremendous law enforcement efforts to curb it. As long as there is demand, supply will continue to flourish, albeit in different and increasingly innovative ways.

In 2015, some 35 percent of all recorded drug-related deaths worldwide occurred in Asia; there were 66,100 cases, attributed largely to overdose. Fear of punishment or arrest almost always prevents drug users from seeking help, meaning that most people who overdose die a preventable death alone in appalling circumstances. 

Even in the Philippines, where a brutal war on drugs has been raging for almost three years, “success” has been elusive. While the anti-drugs operations have succeeded in changing public perceptions, some 66 percent of Filipinos believe there is a decrease of drug use in their area, it has not managed to shut down the vast drug networks that run through the country. Large shipments of methamphetamines are still making it into the country, with only some of them being intercepted by the police, which means neither supply, nor demand has decreased significantly.

 Where do we go from here?

A decade on, Asia’s overreliance on harsh policies and practices has not only failed monumentally to reduce drug supply and demand, but it has also, in fact, had the opposite effect. The region is awash with illicit drugs, while the drug trade is more dynamic than ever before. At the same time, punitive drug policies have created detrimental health, social and economic consequences that are far more harmful than the drugs themselves.

Moving forward, an immediate challenge for the region is to distinguish between the need for evidence-based responses on drug issues and political prescriptions that are rarely effective and often self-serving. This calls for a rethink of the metrics we use to evaluate drug policies. 

Instead of the unattainable aspiration of a “drug-free” society or the narrow vision of reducing drug markets, states gathering in Vienna next month should develop more meaningful targets (PDF) that reflect the inconvenient realities of such policies on the ground. Such a paradigm shift requires the participation of scholars, civil society groups and people affected by the drug war. 

Fortunately, we can find inspiring stories on the continent, as well. South Korea’s recent legalisation of medical cannabis, for instance, can pave the way for re-thinking the role of drugs in society. 

Thailand‘s success with alternative development programmes, which effectively reduced levels of opium crop cultivation and improved the livelihoods of farmers, can reframe drug cultivation as a sustainable development challenge. Promising efforts by Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam to promote health-oriented responses to drugs can support a larger role for health authorities rather than law enforcement in drug strategies.

Unless governments give such approaches a chance, there will be no successes to speak of in relation to Asia’s drug policies in the future. More of the same zero-tolerance strategies are unlikely to yield different results, which is why we must keep pointing out the futility and harms of draconian drug measures, and challenging governments to move away from their “drug-free” paradigm.

Drug policies must no longer be about waging wars but about confronting the realities of expanding drug markets in ways that improve the state of public health, human rights and development.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.