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Several young men were standing near the entrance of Thingangyun Hospital in central Rangoon on a recent July morning, waiting impatiently for a fellow drug addict to exit the facility.
They had just received their daily dosage of methadone, but one man was not coming out. After a few minutes, they concluded he must have failed the mandatory illegal drugs test and been detained. The group quickly left.
“One of the guys was arrested by police at the hospital,” an addict named Soe Maung said later. “Recently, a girl was arrested in the same hospital while getting methadone… she tried to run away but a policeman caught her by the neck.”
Like the others, Soe Maung, 28, is taking methadone to wean himself off heroin and fight its withdrawal symptoms. He is also a contact person for the Burnet Institute’s HIV Mitigation programme for drug-injecting users and he helps Rangoon’s opiate addicts enter methadone therapy.
Drug users who register their addiction with police and health authorities can avoid criminal punishment under Burmese laws, which set tough prison sentences for narcotics use, possession and sale. They can enter mandatory methadone maintenance therapy at 46 hospitals across Burma, including Thingangyun Hospital, to suppress withdrawal symptoms as they give up illegal drugs.
Health experts, representatives of drug users, and some politicians say methadone therapy, and other so-called harm reduction strategies for drug users, should be expanded to bring Burma’s rampant drug-abuse problems under control.
They say the government should also change laws that penalise recovering addicts who test positive for illegal drugs, or punish those who fail to attend methadone therapy and regular police registration.
They warn, however, that the National League for Democracy (NLD) government’s approach so far has only been punitive, as the Ministry of Home Affairs launched a nationwide drugs and crime crackdown that arrested many addicts, but did little to help them.
Government crackdown nets mostly addicts
Soe Maung said the NLD’s approach had raised fears among Rangoon’s addicts, while police were more quick to arrest recovering users who failed the conditions of the methadone therapy programme.
“More addicts who are taking methadone have been arrested during the first 100-days plan of the new government,” he said.
Okkar Min, an upper house NLD lawmaker from Tenasserim Division, urged his government to abandon this repressive approach and introduce genuine reforms.
“The government needs to lay down a policy to open more rehab centres for drug addicts. If it keeps arresting all drug users, as it has been doing over the past few months, then they will fill up the prisons but the problem won’t be solved,” he said.
According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, police arrested 4,761 people in 3,197 drug-related cases between 1 April and 31 July. Several hundred kilos of opium and heroin, and millions of methamphetamine pills were seized, but arrests of those running the drug rings remain rare.
“When I asked police officers about those arrested in the drugs crackdown they were just small dealers or users,” Okkar Min said. It would be more effective, he added, to fight government corruption and increase public education campaigns that warn youths about narcotics.
Plans to reform laws, expand rehab
Burma has long been a major producer of opium, its derivate heroin and methamphetamine, much of which originates from and passes through its poor, ethnic borderlands, where the government remains weak. Drug abuse in these areas and in Burma’s major cities has reportedly worsened sharply in recent years, prompting calls for a new approach to drug addiction.
The Drug Policy Advocacy Group, a network of health experts and NGOs, has worked with health officials on expanding harm reduction and rehabilitation programmes, while it cooperated with law enforcement officials to develop plans for amending drug laws.
Dr. Hla Htay, senior technical manager at the Burnet Institute and a member of the group, said the government’s capacity to provide methadone therapy is hindered by current laws and limited due to a lack of resources and facilities.
He said there are now about 7,000 registered addicts seeking rehabilitation, but Thingangyun Hospital, for example, can only provide methadone for 400 addicts on a daily basis.
An opiate detoxification centre at Yangon Mental Health Hospital in East Dagon Township, on the city’s outskirts, can treat only 50 patients at a time for a two-week treatment.
According to some estimates, there are 81,000 drug users in Burma.
Dr. Hla Htay said methadone supplies at the Yangon Mental Health Hospital were often not sufficient for the detoxification treatment. “We cannot give addicts the amount of methadone they asked for, and every project needs good facilities and skilled staff,” he said. “But we have plans to expand this project”
The Thingangyun Hospital methadone service is limited to 8am to 11am, another practical hindrance for addicts, who might relapse if they miss the methadone’s clinic opening hours, according to Win Min, a Burnet Institute staffer who counsels addicts.
Dr. Hla Htay said drug reform advocates have worked together with police officers of the Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control (CCDAC) to draft amendments to the 1993 Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Law, which would remove penalties for drug users.
Police Colonel Myint Aung, who heads the International Department of the CCDAC, confirmed the draft amendments had been completed. “We are going to send this bill to the Union Attorney General’s Office and later it will be discussed in parliament,” he said.
“Drug users are now arrested, but this bill would enforce steps that would make it a health issue, rather than a criminal one,” he added.
Dr. Hla Htay said he hoped the bill could be brought to the attention of the NLD government and parliament within the next few months so that it could begin reforms.
“Drug addicts should not be imprisoned, instead they need opiate detoxification treatment,” he said. “If they were found to be using drugs, police should urge them to go to hospital.”
This article was originally published by Myanmar Now on 18 August 2016.