Pubdate: Sat, 09 Apr 2016
Source: Bangkok Post (Thailand)
Copyright: The Post Publishing Public Co., Ltd. 2016
Authors: Jeremy Douglas, Olivier Lermet
Note: Jeremy Douglas is the Regional Representative for the United 
Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) for Southeast Asia and the 
Pacific. Olivier Lermet is UNODC Regional Advisor on Drugs and Health 
for Southeast Asia.


In less than two weeks a rare United Nations General Assembly Special 
Session (UNGASS) on global drug policy takes place in New York. Among 
the issues to be debated and discussed many resonate in Southeast 
Asia, including the impact of drug production, trafficking and use on 
vulnerable countries, communities and people.

Importantly, preparatory negotiations over the past year have created 
space for countries and policy leaders to reflect on the traditional 
"war on drugs" approach, but also prominently featured a debate on 
the need for justice reform and improved access to health services.

A major challenge for governments here in Southeast Asia is high, and 
rising, prison populations resulting from sentences for drug-related 
offences including for minor drug possession and use. 
Disproportionate sentences for relatively low level drug crime are 
not only a burden on justice systems and state budgets in the region, 
but have also proven to be detrimental to human rights - most 
correctional facilities in the region simply do not provide a safe 
and healthy environment for people in custody.

One way of reducing the prison population is to ensure that drug 
users are able to access the right mix of health and social services 
that reduce the harmful consequences of drug use, including voluntary 
community-based drug treatment and counselling. Why does this matter 
in Southeast Asia? Drug use prevalence rates - especially synthetic 
drugs like methamphetamine and in some places heroin - remain very 
high across the region, and some cities are reporting HIV rates among 
people who inject drugs over 40%. The data are undeniable and lead to 
the conclusion that a public health response to drug use is urgently 
needed in the region.

Aside from putting people in prison, it is also common in Southeast 
Asia to confine people who use drugs to "compulsory treatment and 
rehabilitation centres". It is estimated that half a million people 
are detained in these centres every year across the region, and 
because most do not medically assess the dependence of those admitted 
there is no distinction made between those needing treatment and 
those that do not.

Many casual drug users that are not dependent or problematic users 
end up being held for lengthy periods.

The blunt reality is that the centres are themselves quasi-prisons 
with little or no positive treatment outcomes.

And in instances where medical treatment or counselling is provided 
in the centres, it is often generic and may actually contribute to 
high relapse rates on release.

There has however been some recent progress - together with UNAIDS 
and Unescap we convened a regional consultation in Manila last year 
where representatives of nine countries agreed to transition towards 
voluntary community-based services for people who use drugs.

Alternatives to incarceration and proportionate sentencing for 
drug-related offences can also reduce prison overcrowding. Through 
establishing the intention behind an offender's possession of 
narcotic drugs - for example if it is for personal use or intended 
for sale to others - clear distinctions can be made on the type of 
sentence a person should receive or not, and the type of services 
they may need. In many instances the option of referral to 
community-based treatment and care can be the answer, yet this 
conclusion can only be reached when a people-centred approach is used 
that places the health and well-being of individuals and communities first.

As the UNGASS approaches it is important to remember that the 
international drug control treaties do not mandate a war on drugs 
approach. Drug policy can, and should, include a balance of 
appropriate supply and demand reduction interventions, and be aligned 
with socio-economic development efforts including improved access to 
health care and social services.

Governments should also keep in mind that dealing with demand for 
illicit drugs and ensuring access to public health services results 
in good public security.

As the lead UN agency on matters related to illicit drugs and crime 
we are supporting efforts across the region to provide for the rule 
of law and ensure services are available for drug users.

We hope that the UNGASS will contribute to a rebalancing of the way 
the drug problem is managed here in Southeast Asia.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom