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In 2014, a number of civil society organisations and researchers concerned over the health and well-being of drugs users and impoverished small-scale opium farmers set up the Drug Policy Advocacy Group (DPAG). The network advocates a shift away from Burma’s current, punitive drug laws to legislation that decriminalises drug use and subsistence poppy farming, and which provides healthcare for users and helps farmers to gradually substitute their poppy crop.
Last month, Dr. Nang Pann Ei Kham, a medical doctor and coordinator of Rangoon-based DPAG, oversaw a public workshop organised by DPAG members, which included civil society organisations such as the Myanmar Opium Farmers Forum, National Drug Users Network Myanmar and the Myanmar Anti-Narcotics Association. Members of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission and police officers of the Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control (CCDAC) also attended the event.
During an interview with Myanmar Now, Dr. Nang Pann Ei Kham stressed the need to reform Burma’s drug laws in order to address widespread drug addiction in northern Burma and to help tens of thousands of poor opium farmers find an alternative livelihood.
Question: Can you explain why DPAG was created?
Answer: We formed this group to help create sound drug policies that support human rights and health care services (for drug users). I joined this group to help drug-using people infected with HIV and hepatitis. We want to organise workshops and public meetings in areas seriously affected by drug abuse.
Q: What sort of drug abuse is now affecting Kachin and Shan states?
A: Kachin State has poppy cultivation and many injecting heroin users. There are many cases of HIV infection through the sharing of needles. Similar cases are happening in northern Shan State, while low-grade opium is more common in its southern parts. Stimulant tablets (methamphetamine) are also spreading in these areas.
Q: What does DPAG prioritise, helping poppy farmers change their crops, or medical services for drug addicts?
A: We will help both poppy cultivators and drug addicts find other options. They need support from our networks, and we invited them to workshops on drug policy (reform). Educative programmes will be conducted for them in Kachin State, and in southern and northern Shan State.
Q: What is your position on Burma’s existing drug control laws?
A: These laws should be amended. Last year, we organised a workshop in cooperation with the government’s Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control (CCDAC) and the Ministry of Health. The event’s participants concluded that we need reforms. We will keep highlighting the need for amendments to drug control laws during the term of the new (National League for Democracy) government.
We will call for reduction of penalties for drug users. If someone wants to give up drug use, we should refer them to the Myanmar Anti-Narcotics Association (an NGO). They should not be sent to prison. Clean injection syringes must be distributed free of charge to users (to avoid health risks).
Both the government’s effective policy and the public’s contribution play a crucial role in this movement. Some drug users, for example, have been sentenced to 20 years in prison though they were arrested with only a small number of (meth) pills – that’s not a fair punishment. Punishments should also be reduced for poppy cultivators.
Q: What exact changes should be made to drug laws?
A: I would like to suggest that drug-addicted people should not be treated as criminals; the compulsory registration system for drug-addicted persons should be revoked. Getting medical treatment should be an option for drug addicts. The drug control laws must meet human rights standards. Laws on drug injection needles and syringes must be amended.
Q: How will you work with the new government?
A: We will propose our plans to the new government. We will gather information from poppy cultivators and drug abusers to inform the government and parliamentarians of their needs.
Q: Do you think a nationwide ceasefire and an end of ethnic conflict could lead to improvements on drug issues?
A: A ceasefire in ethnic areas could reduce drug (trade)-related conflict. Also, educative talks on drug abuse could not be held in conflict-torn areas of Kachin State, and northern and southern Shan State. So, there is a certain relation between a ceasefire and drug abuse.
Q: What sort of needs do poppy farmers have, how can they change their crops?
A: Cultivation of alternative crops causes financial losses due to the difficulty in terms of transportation and poor access to mountainous areas. Therefore, poppy cultivation is the only option for local people. If the government or public movements destroy their poppy farm, they will have no more household income. Crop substitution plans must be considered for them. Development programs must be set up before the poppy fields are destroyed.
Poppy farmers should be asked why they are growing the crop. They would abandon this business if they did not have worries about their daily income. They are growing poppy to generate enough income. They have no knowledge about how opium can destroy the lives of users. They do not know the details of the opium trade and have no intention to destroy others.
Q: What are the biggest challenges in helping drug addicts and opium cultivators?
A: There are many drug addicts in Burma, while poppy cultivators are seen as criminals. Family and social problems have turned some people into drug addicts. So, the root causes must first be found. All these people should not be treated as criminals. It is a major challenge to promote this idea among the public and policymakers.