Global attitudes on narcotic drugs are changing, but the shift has come too late for those caught up in Asia’s past decade of misguided and often lethal anti-drug campaigns.

Canada just legalized recreational use of cannabis, while Portugal has decriminalized drugs entirely. Switzerland recently implemented arguably the best form of harm reduction methods for decreasing opiate dependence, overdose, and disease from sharing needles. Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines are moving to do the same for medical purposes.

But it’s not all good news across the region, recent research shows.

Over the past ten years, governments around the world have applied questionable, if not counter-productive, tactics to decrease the use and distribution of drugs, often in so-called “war on drugs” campaigns.

According to a new report, Taking Stock, by the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), a global network of 177 NGOs that work on issues related to drug production, drug use, and trafficking, the 10-year United Nations (UN) drug strategy has been a “colossal failure.”

The report claims that the original targets and commitments made in the UN’s 2009 Political Declaration and Plan of Action have not been met, and have actually led to an array of counterproductive policies and results.

Seized marijuana blocks are displayed to the media at the national police headquarters in Jakarta on May 11, 2015. Indonesian police revealed 2.1 tons of marijuana packages as evidence from recent raids. AFP PHOTO / ADEK BERRY (Photo by ADEK BERRY / AFP)
Seized marijuana blocks at the national police headquarters in Jakarta on May 11, 2015. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry

Drafted as a response to governments and the UN, the findings are scathing. The report makes the claim that the last ten years of the war on drugs has “generated a catastrophic impact on health, human rights, security and development, while not even remotely reducing the global supply of illegal drugs.”

“This report is another nail in the coffin for the war on drugs,” said Ann Fordham, executive director of IDPC. “The fact that governments and the UN do not see fit to properly evaluate the disastrous impact of the last ten years of drug policy is depressingly unsurprising.”

She noted that governments will meet next March at the UN and will likely rubber-stamp more of the same for the next decade of drug policy. “This would be a gross dereliction of duty and a recipe for more blood spilled in the name of drug control,” Fordham said.

Rivers of blood are, indeed, spilling in the name of countering narcotics – particularly in Southeast Asia. That’s been most prominently seen in the Philippines’ ongoing drug war. President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration has employed lethal tactics that critics claim represent crimes against humanity.

IDPC’s latest estimates show there have been roughly 27,000 extrajudicial killings related to the drug war since Duterte assumed his country’s presidency in mid-2016.

According to his state-of-the-nation address in July, the tough-talking leader made clear he has no intention of slowing down his assault on drug dealers and users, despite a rising chorus of criticism.

EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / (FILES) This file photo taken on July 8, 2016, shows police officers investigating a dead body of an alleged drug dealer, his face covered with packing tape in Manila.Duterte ends his first year as Philippine president on June 30, 2017 as a hugely popular leader, after taking Filipinos on a promised "rough ride" of drug war killings and foreign policy U-turns. / AFP PHOTO / NOEL CELIS / GRAPHIC CONTENT
Philippine police officers investigate a dead body of an alleged drug dealer, his face covered with packing tape, in Manila. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

“It will be as relentless and chilling as on the day it began” Duterte said, vowing to continue his controversial campaign. He has also jailed critics, encouraged violence towards journalists, human rights activists and other anti-drug war activists.

Between kill lists, paid mercenary “justice” and blatant extrajudicial killings by police, IDPC hints that the Philippines could be the worst example of what happens when drug policy goes wrong.

Phil Robertson, the Deputy Director, Asia Division, of Human Rights Watch, told Asia Times that Duterte won’t get away with “crimes against humanity” forever.

“President Duterte has incited and initiated a campaign of widespread extra-judicial killings in the service of his so-called drug war, and the international community needs to hold him accountable,” he said. “Duterte can run and evade, but ultimately he is not going to be able to hide from these egregious crimes done on his orders.”

The IDPC report also sharply criticizes corporal punishment, including caning, whipping, lashing, flogging, stoning and bodily mutilation, for drug offenses.

In Southeast Asia, these archaic forms of punishment are still widely used. Countries like Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore have all employed these punishments for drug crimes over the past decade.

In fact, Singapore and Malaysia are some of the most active states in the world for using these forms of so-called “rehabilitation” for drug offenses.

“Any way that you look at it, corporal punishment is a form of torture and international human rights law’s prohibition on torture is absolute—there are no exceptions in which it can be used,” Robertson said.

He said that while there’s no evidence to show that corporal punishment slows down drug use or sales, governments are keen to keep the punishments at their disposal in prosecuting their wars on drugs.

“There is also no real efficacy argument for whipping drug offenders.,” Robertson noted. “The problem is these governments are highly invested in continuing corporal punishment as part of their anti-drug assault, so they pump out information to persuade their publics and act to intimidate and marginalize activists who are calling for an end to these punishments.”

Thailand-Drug Offenders-Klong Prem prison
Drug offenders at Thailand’s Klong Prem prison. Photo: Facebook

The IDPC report also takes issue with the use of compulsory detention as “treatment” for drug offenses. For years, UN entities and other rights groups have been pushing for more humane approaches to dealing with drug use.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention indicates that compulsory detention for drug offenses can actually raise the risk of HIV and tuberculosis infections.

They’ve also said that the methodology for sending people to compulsory detention is often largely arbitrary.

But according to the IDPC report, countries like Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Lao, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam all maintain this practice.

Then there’s the death penalty. In the last ten years 3,940 people have been executed for drug offenses globally, with 33 jurisdictions worldwide retaining the death penalty for drug crimes. Asia-Pacific nations account for the bulk of the killings.

But in reality, IDPC says, the execution figure is understated because many countries hide the practice. They say that China, specifically, is thought to have conducted thousands of executions for drug offenses in the past ten years but it’s kept veiled from the international community.

Meanwhile, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has adopted Duterte’s style of drug control through “shoot on sight” orders. Drug-related deaths have tripled since the order was first casually instructed in July 2017.

The IDPC report shows that over the last decade the global drug war has actually worsened the situation. It indicates the number of drug-related deaths “increased by 145%, reaching 450,000 deaths per year in 2015.”

Activists take part in a rally after 91 people were shot dead this week in an escalation of President Rodrigo Duterte's ruthless war on drugs in Quezon city, Metro Manila, Philippines August 18, 2017. REUTERS/Dondi Tawatao
Filipino activists rally against President Rodrigo Duterte’s lethal war on drugs in Quezon city, Metro Manila, August 18, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Dondi Tawatao

North America’s opiate epidemic has contributed largely to these lethal figures, with 71,000 people dying from overdoses in the United States in 2017.

IDPC suggests a more enlightened approach to the problem. It’s research recommends that that UN member states urgently identify and implement more meaningful drug policy goals that are rational, reasonable, and focused on assisting the most vulnerable.

It also says that UN member states should consider ending punitive drug control approaches, and instead focus on policies of empathy and compassion.

“Since governments started collecting data on drugs in the 1990s, the cultivation, consumption and illegal trafficking of drugs have reached record levels,” writes Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand and Global Commission on Drug Policy member, in the report’s foreword.

“Moreover, current drug policies are a serious obstacle to other social and economic objectives and the ‘war on drugs’ has resulted in millions of people murdered, disappeared, or internally displaced.”