Asia’s war on meth has failed; now it’s time to look at the alternatives
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Asia’s war on meth has failed; now it’s time to look at the alternatives

An unprecedented rise in methamphetamine trafficking is fuelling a new epidemic across Asia and Oceania, warns a new report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), published Tuesday.

In its report entitled, “The Challenge of Synthetic Drugs in East and Southeast Asia and Oceania,” the UNODC revealed that seizures of methamphetamine have almost quadrupled over the last five years, from 11 to 42 metric tonnes.

“Methamphetamine continues to dominate the synthetic drugs market in East and South-East Asia,” the report states, “and is mainly available in two forms: methamphetamine tablets and crystalline methamphetamine,” also known as “ice.”

Between 2008 and 2013, crystalline methamphetamine seizures doubled, from seven metric tonnes to around 14 metric tonnes; while seizures of methamphetamine tablets grew eightfold — from 30 million tablets in 2008 to more than 250 million tablets in 2013.

Meanwhile, throughout Asia and Oceania, more people than ever before are undergoing treatment for methamphetamine addiction.

In China, for example, the number of methamphetamine users registered at government clinics increased 40 per cent between 2012 and 2013. And in Lao, Thailand and Cambodia, more than 90 per cent of people who received drug treatment in 2013 were users of methamphetamine.

However, while the UNODC’s report offers clear figures on methamphetamine treatment across the region, it fails to explain whether such treatment has been effective in reducing relapse and recidivism among users. This is an important omission by the UNODC, since the quality of drug treatment services throughout Asia is known to be notoriously low.

(READ MORE: Rethinking Thailand’s war on meth)

In China and Southeast Asia, for example, hundreds of thousands of low-level drug offenders are held in abusive “compulsory drug detention centres,” where they are forced to endure rigorous physical drill and military-style boot camp, all in the name of ‘treatment’. What’s more, most of these detainees are not drug addicts: they are merely occasional or non-dependent drug users, needlessly caught up in the treatment system after being picked up by police.

In Thailand alone, around 150,000 drug offenders are thought to be held in compulsory detention centres, undergoing a form of ‘treatment’ that has no basis in scientific evidence.

In recent years, the UNODC has been explicit in its condemnation of Asia’s compulsory drug treatment centres. In 2012, for instance, the UNODC issued a joint statement calling on all “states to close compulsory drug detention centres and implement voluntary, evidence-informed and rights-based health and social services.”

In its new report, however, the UNODC refers to such centres as a valid form of “treatment.”

Gloria Lai, a senior policy officer at the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), has criticised the UNODC for its failure to examine treatment practices across Asia and the Pacific.

“The report notes the numbers of people accessing drug treatment, but not the quality and effectiveness of such drug treatment services,” said Lai.

“[This is] an important issue given that most countries in East and Southeast Asia mandate terms of incarceration in prisons or in so-called rehabilitation centres for people who use drugs, while neglecting the provision of evidence-based treatment for drug dependence.”

Lai argues that the UNODC’s new report is obsessively focused on law enforcement and methamphetamine trafficking trends, but fails to consider the human costs.

“The report [does not] present any findings about the nature and profile of drug use and dependence,” said Lai, “nor data on overdose deaths, prevalence of HIV and other illnesses associated with drug use . . . which can help inform improved policy responses to harms associated with drug markets in the region.”

By the UNODC’s own admission, Asia is failing to stop the spread of methamphetamine. Interdiction efforts aimed at breaking-up trafficking rings and controlling precursor chemicals have been ineffective at keeping methamphetamine out of communities, and yet governments across the region remain convinced that a militarised, law enforcement-led approach is the best we can do.

Among NGOs, however, there is growing recognition of the need for harm reduction services to combat methamphetamine.

Over in Australia, for example, more effective solutions are “already on the table,” according to one NGO, the Noffs Foundation, which works with young people who use methamphetamine.

Matt Noffs, the project’s CEO, has called on the Australian government to consider the use of supervised administration rooms, where methamphetamine users could go to consult with public health professionals in a controlled environment, without fear of being arrested. Such measures would help reduce drug-related crime and encourage methamphetamine users to access treatment services voluntarily.

“We need to consider the lessons of previous successes,” Noffs said in a recent Guardian column.

“Perhaps it’s time to establish a safe place for ice users along the lines of the heroin injecting centre: a place where users can be monitored, where adverse physical and mental reactions to the drug can be professionally dealt with. This could, like the injecting centre, become a place where users develop a trust relationship with staff and are eventually amenable to referral into treatment.”

Supervised injecting rooms are proven to reduce crime, HIV transmission and overdose deaths. The Medically Supervised Injecting Centre (MSIC) in Kings Cross, Sydney, for example, treated 4,400 heroin overdoses between 2001 – 2011, without a single fatality.

And such results are not anomalous. Dr Marianne Jauncey, the medical director of Sydney’s MSIC, points out that there has not been a single overdose death in any of the 92 supervised injecting facilities operating around the world — in countries such as Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain.

“It’s all about engagement with people that generally are quite mistrusting and have little contact with other health and welfare services,” said Jauncey, as quoted by Vice News.

“It’s getting to know them, getting them to trust you, to such that, then you’re in a position that they’re much more likely to accept referrals and offers of assistance.”

The UNODC must take a firm stance against the continued use of compulsory drug treatment centres throughout Asia, and invest in voluntary, evidenced-based harm reduction services, pursuant with its 2012 Joint Statement.

The fight against methamphetamine cannot be won merely by waging war on traffickers and forcing users into compulsory detention. Such heavy-handed tactics have already proven ineffective. The real battle will take places in local communities and voluntary treatment centres, where methamphetamine users can access quality harm reduction services, and see alternatives to drug use.

As Noffs says, new solutions are “already on the table.” All we need now is for policymakers to take a seat.