By Gloria Lai, International Drug Policy Consortium
On 24 June 2016, the Drug Policy Advocacy Group – Myanmar (DPAG) joined forces with an art gallery in the city centre to launch a photo exhibition with a special event to raise awareness on the need to rethink traditional punitive and zero tolerance drug policies. Guests travelled from other parts of the country to speak about their experience as people who use drugs and people who cultivate opium for subsistence purposes.
A gentleman spoke about being subject to forced treatment for 9 months, returning to drug use, and then arrested after he failed to register as a user and being in possession of a needle and syringe. He spent over 8 years in prison, during which he found out that he was HIV positive. He has lived 16 years with HIV and without any treatment, and asked not to be punished any longer but for support instead.
Two splendidly-dressed ladies spoke about why they cultivated opium: for food security, and to afford to look after their children. No other crop could as easily be sold on the market for enough income to support their families. In addition, opium is a handy medicine for ailments such as fever and diarrhea. They asked not to be treated as criminals nor to be subject to forceful crop eradication, and instead for access to alternative livelihood programmes, while also suggesting that if opium was eradicated, people will move to using more harmful substances such as amphetamine-type stimulants.
A former member of parliament and former senior official of Myanmar’s drug control agency also spoke, drawing attention to the harms of disproportionately severe penalties for even low-level offences and the need for drug law reform. After a time of involved discussion with members of the audience, DPAG’s coordinator Nang Pann Ei Kham closed the event by calling for an end to the war on drugs and approaches that Support. Don’t Punish.
This event was particularly significant for stimulating awareness and debate in Myanmar as the newly-elected government has yet to decide on whether to approve amendments to the country’s drug law, which includes reduced penalties for all drug-related activities.