In Solidarity with Myanmar: Calling for support for people affected by punitive drug policies

The COVID-19 pandemic and the political crisis in Myanmar have only compounded the dire challenges faced by people who use drugs in the country.

By the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC)

In light of the Support. Don’t Punish Global Day of Action, on 26 June, which is also UN World Drug Day, the International Drug Policy Consortium expresses solidarity with the people of Myanmar calling for drug policies that advance sustainable development, public health and human rights. The health, safety and well-being of so many people in Myanmar are in peril. People who use and cultivate drugs for subsistence, along with their families and communities, face dire risks to their lives.

Myanmar is the largest supplier of opium and heroin in the Asia-Pacific region. The incomes of farmers who have limited options but to cultivate opium to sustain a livelihood, mostly in the states of Kachin and Shan, have been declining in recent years due to changes in market demand. They are in serious need of development assistance to cultivate sustainable alternative livelihoods.

The decrease in opium cultivation in Myanmar has been more than offset by the increasing production and distribution of synthetic drugs throughout the wider region, particularly methamphetamine. Neither the pandemic, nor the current political crisis, appears to have slowed the markets for synthetic drugs. However, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, quality drug treatment and life-saving harm reduction services for people who use drugs were already seriously lacking. As a consequence, HIV prevalence amongst the estimated 93,000 people who inject drugs in the country towers at 35%, one of the highest rates in the world. In the northern remote parts of Myanmar, such as Kachin State, where injecting heroin use is highly common, the rate of HIV prevalence among people who inject drugs is as high as 61%.  In addition, the prevalence of Hepatitis C (HCV) among people who inject drugs is 56% nationwide. In times of deep political and social crisis, the lives of people who use drugs are now at an even greater risk of experiencing those negative consequences.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic and the political crisis, harm reduction services including needle and syringe exchange programs, hepatitis B testing and vaccination, hepatitis C testing and treatment, condom distribution, peer-based health education, oral substitution therapy (OST), HIV testing and treatment (ART) were provided through drop-in-centers and community-based outreach activities, mainly by international and local NGOs. Under a legal framework that criminalised and punished people who use drugs, there was still the possibility of enabling life-saving health services for them, resulting in the establishment of 89 methadone clinics across the country that treated over 24,000 clients.  However the concurrent crises caused by the pandemic and political situation, have pushed service providers to scale down their services. People who use drugs face particularly greater challenges in trying to access harm reduction services including needle and syringe interventions, and treatment such as ART and OST.

There are few communities in Myanmar that are not impacted by the country’s drug policies. With 2021 being the 60th anniversary of the Single Convention, and the 50th year of the ‘war on drugs’ launched by US President Nixon, it is an opportunity to take stock, reflect and consider alternative, sustainable approaches to drug policy. The idea that the challenges posed by drugs could be addressed through harsh punishment and penalties is clearly ineffective, as evidenced by continually expanding and diversifying drug markets, and the consequences on people’s lives have been devastating.

Every year, on 26 June, the Support. Don’t Punish campaign mobilises in reaction to the damage and loss caused by punitive drug policies, and to build sustainable alternatives that end cycles of punishment and marginalisation. We call for drug policies that end the damage and instead, advance our communities’ health, human rights and well-being. Together with communities in over 250 cities around the world, we join with people in Myanmar calling for efforts to ensure the sustainability of life-saving harm reduction and health services for people who use drugs, to end their criminalisation and punishment, and work towards drug policies that lead to improved health and human rights outcomes for people who use drugs and their communities.