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Strengthening communities' involvement in response to drug problems

Shan State (Myanmar), 27 July 2019
- From July 21 to 27, a total of 41 participants - including UNODC experts, community and youth leaders and volunteers from Loilen and Hopong Townships, Shan State - joined a UNODC-led visit to better understand local contexts, experiences and community efforts and initiatives on harm reduction, drug rehabilitation and reintegration in Kachin State, Sagaing and Mandalay Regions.

Myanmar is the world's second largest producer of opium with 37,300 hectares under cultivation in 2018. At the same time, Myanmar has become a major global producer of meth-amphetamines. Opium poppy cultivation adversely affects the livelihoods of opium farmers and meth-amphetamine production and trafficking undermines the country's economy. There are over 93,000 people who inject drugs (PWID) according to nationwide estimates and 35 percent of them have contracted HIV. In addition to many other health problems they face, from tuberculosis and malnutrition to mental health problems, Hepatitis B and C infections are also prevalent among PWID. In Myanmar, drug use is rarely seen as a public health issue among the general populace. Thus, PWID face damaging stigmas and are victims of deeply entrenched discrimination within their own communities.

To tackle this issue, the Government of Myanmar (GoM) has developed a National Drug Control Policy to adopt international best practices with the support of UNODC. This policy takes a cross-cutting, human-centred approach to drug response, including harm reduction and compliance with human rights. Crucially, it promotes a whole-of-society approach starting with the individuals and families; communities and community groups; civil society organizations; and governments at the local, regional and national levels.

Building on the newly introduced National Drug Control Policy, UNODC has taken several steps to further encourage its implementation and additional reforms. Since 2014, UNODC has provided technical support and funding to government and community-based organizations to deploy scientific, evidence-based drug use prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and rehabilitation strategies under Sub-Programme 4 of the UNODC Country Programme for Myanmar (2014-2020).

In 2019, it also worked towards developing a community-based drug use prevention and treatment programme incorporated with harm reduction activities in Hopong and Loilen townships, Southern Shan State. This effort is part of UNODC's broader alternative development programme currently taking place in the area.

In both locations, volunteers and interested community and youth leaders are taking part in trainings and field activities on community-based drug use prevention. Additionally, UNODC's Sub-Programme 5 on Sustainable Livelihoods and Alternative Development has also been at work in Loilen and Hopong townships with a successful programme incentivizing opium poppy farmers to shift to cultivating coffee.

The July visit was organized especially for volunteers and community leaders from the programme villages. The visit aimed to provide them with the opportunity to learn from local efforts and initiatives in other communities and to be more informed about different drug contexts and challenges to better serve their own communities. Participants hailed from various backgrounds and were given a unique platform to discuss drug issues and observe successful community-led drug interventions which collaborate with public sectors in Nam Mun village, Moenyin Township, Kachin State and Sagaing Township, Sagaing Region and in Mandalay.

Observatory activities and discussions were organized in partnership with several groups, including the local AIDS Committee and Methadone Clinic in Nam Mun, the Metta Development Foundation, key population service centres run by the Shwe Zayar CBO (supported by Alliance Myanmar), the Mandalay Rehabilitation Centre, and the Volunteer Social Workers Association in Mandalay.

Participants focused on awareness raising; key harm reduction services such as needle and syringe programmes and HIV prevention among PWID; community-based methadone maintenance therapy; antiretroviral treatment for HIV-infected people; income generation activities for PWID self-help groups; social reintegration activities for PWID; and peer group activities and education.

Due to the pervasiveness of drug use and the dramatic health and social consequences on communities, local leaders have been committed to a supportive, non-discriminatory and non-punitive approach to people affected by drugs. As a result, various commendable achievements can be seen across communities.

Participants found the visit's regional scope especially informative and emerged inspired by their discussions. They reflected that the tour challenged their personal assumptions about drug issues and drug dependency and were newly committed to applying what they learned to building drug prevention programmes in their respective communities.

The UNODC-supported visit was an important milestone in laying the foundations of a well-informed, conflict-sensitive, community-oriented programme. It is crucial for communities to take on an outsized role in drug interventions. Local leaders must continue to unite community members and organizations to respond to drug problems efficiently and effectively.