Drug law and policy review in Myanmar brings experts, agencies and civil society together

Yangon (Myanmar), 25 March 2015
- As part of a comprehensive effort to respond to drug use in Myanmar, UNODC and UNAIDS have supported a wide-ranging consultation on amending the 1993 'Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Law' (the Drug Law) in Nay Pyi Taw, from 16 to 19 February. The objectives of the workshop, held by the Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control (CCDAC), were to present the proposed amendments to the drug law and receive technical guidance and inputs from participants.

The workshop involved a broad range of stakeholders, including senior representatives of Government, parliamentarians, international health and legal experts, INGO/NGOs, drug user networks, development partners, UN agencies and other relevant technical partners.

A cooperative and participatory review process

The participatory dimension of the Drug Law review process was in itself a highly commendable achievement with frank and productive discussions. Not only were UN agencies and the CCDAC able to provide recommendations within a short period of time, they were also able to suggest critical changes including the removal of compulsory registration for drug users, switching from imprisonment to drug treatment, reduction of penalties for small offenders and the inclusion of the harm reduction approach in the law. Recommendations were also made by the United Nations to remove the death penalty for drug related criminal offences.

The process of reviewing the drug law was accelerated in 2014 following a meeting of Regional Representative Jeremy Douglas with Aung San Suu Kyi and a subsequent request from the Ministry of Home Affairs. Stakeholders and international experts then gathered to complete a comprehensive report sent to MoHA to guide discussions of an intergovernmental workshop organized by CCDAC in late January. The success of the consultation owes much to years of cooperation between CCDAC, UNODC, and partners including UNAIDS to address legal barriers and reform the drug law.

Jeremy Douglas United Nations UN UNODC Drug Policy Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi

Key moments of the national consultation

In his opening speech, the Chief of the Myanmar Police Force cum Secretary of CCDAC, Pol. Maj. Gen. Zaw Win noted that the revised law would address the following main policy areas: 1) reduction of penalties associated with minor drug offences; 2) regulation of drug use and possession for use; and 3) regulation through administrative laws. Pol. Maj. Gen. Zaw Win, further emphasised that the revised drug law should draw a clear distinction between the various actors in the market, with protection for people who use drugs with appropriate responses and services.

Mr Eamonn Murphy, Country Director of UNAIDS Myanmar provided an overview of the HIV prevalence among people who inject drugs, and the challenges of the response to HIV in Myanmar, touching on the significance that the recommended changes will have on the drug user community, "there are a number of factors that drive this epidemic among PWID, however it is recognized that the prohibitive nature of a number of laws in Myanmar impede efforts towards addressing HIV in populations of drug users." Mr Murphy stressed on the need to scale up harm reduction interventions in Myanmar.

Olivier Lermet United Nations UN UNODCComplementary to this, Mr Olivier Lermet, Health Regional Advisor for UNODC's Regional Office for Southeast Asia and the Pacific provided a contextual overview of drug trends in the region and affirmed that community-based services for drug users, inclusive of harm reduction services, are in line with the 3 International Drug Conventions (1961 single convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1971 convention on Psychotropic Substances and 1988 United Nations conventions against Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic substances). "This review is also timely, as a state of the art legislation could be used as an example to guide the countries in the region, now engaging a critical review and evaluation of the drug free ASEAN policy, for instance. Confirming what the global, regional and local evidence is telling us: good public health makes good public security."

Jeremy Douglas United Nations UN UNODC Drug Policy Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi

Productive exchanges, inputs and discussions

U Sit Aye, Senior Legal Advisor to the President relayed the Government's rationale behind the Drug Law review, "despite all of Myanmar's efforts, it is currently recognized that the current thinking and practice on drug use and punishment is not working. Even after long jail terms, it does not in any way deter many drug users from continuing with their drug use. Clearly, the current approach does not work as well as intended, and needs to be looked at."

In line with U Sit Aye's statement on changing the current thinking on drug use and punishment, Ms Catherine Muganga UNODC Legal Officer, reiterated the role of the UN conventions, "ultimately, the conventions intend to protect the public health and the criminal justice and law enforcement is the means to achieving this goal." Ms Muganga's inputs re-enforced the need for multi-sectoral input, but further to that, a multi-sectoral coordinated response to both public health and safety.

Dr Maung Maung Lwin, a representative from the Myanmar Anti-Narcotic Association (MANA) stated, on behalf of civil society that "people who use drugs have the right to available, accessible, acceptable and sufficient quality health services."

Drug User Network's Chairperson in Myanmar, U Kyaw Thu, echoed Dr Maung Maung Lwin's points and added, "the law needs to approach drug use as a public health and a humanitarian issue. It should ensure to protect the basic human rights of all drug a humanitarian issue. It should ensure to protect the basic human rights of all drug users."

Mr. Dave Burrows, UNAIDS Expert further emphasised, "international practice now considers that we approach drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal one."

The spirit of consensus between the main groups is reflected in the revised draft law that was presented by the Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control on the final day of the workshop, and contains amendments in line with international commitments and frameworks. The UN offered continued support to the process of the 1993 Drug Law Review through the provision of technical expertise and guidance as needed by the Government of Myanmar.