Time for a Fresh Start on Drug PoliciesThe alternative to adopting new and progressive policies on drugs is more prisons and the marginalization of even larger numbers of Taiwan’s youth
Amid talk of constitutional reform and experts’ evaluations of drug laws in an era of surging substance use and jail overcrowding, the time has come for Taiwanese society and officials to engage in intelligent debate on the subject.
According to government statistics the No. 1 cause of death in Taiwan for the past 31 years has been cancer, with lung and liver cancers leading the way.
Of the top 10 causes of death in Taiwan, year after year, alcohol and tobacco — two legal drugs — played a role. Together, they knock into a cocked hat any other possible cause of death. It has been stated that even if by some miracle Taiwan were to become” tobacco free,” there would still be 200,000 smoking-related deaths over the next 20 years. In 2012 the FDA announced that the top 5 drugs abused in Taiwan were (with the exception of the legal drugs of alcohol and tobacco, which kill vastly more Taiwanese than any other drug) Heroin (62.8%), Meths/Amphetamine (31.1%), Ketamine (5%) followed by Zolpidem (a prescription medicine) and Ecstasy. Apparently abuse of sleeping pills and other prescribed, legal, drugs is also becoming more prevalent.
There was no mention, by the way, of cannabis. I won’t call it marijuana because that was a joke name invented to rhyme with Tijuana to make it sound more Mexican. Indeed I could not find a single case where it is accepted by reliable sources that cannabis was responsible as the sole and only cause of death, anywhere in the world.
To read, then, that in Taiwan, “Legislators defend the current policies, arguing that addiction, namely to heroin, the deadliest and the island’s most abused drug, is poison to the economy,” befuddles the mind. Clearly it is alcohol and tobacco that pose the biggest problems to the nation’s health and economy. Is there then something we are not aware of in considering this lack of logic? Maybe heavy lobbying by the alcohol and tobacco industries on Taiwanese legislators, government officials and decision makers is the reason. We could look at the record, but unfortunately there is nothing to loom at because the “past six years of records held by the Ministry of Justice’s Agency Against Corruption show that while there are more than 700,000 records of civil servants receiving gifts, attending banquets and being asked to lobby on government project cases, other than receiving gifts, the Presidential Office and the Executive Yuan have made no such declarations of gratuities.” So we don’t know.
Like almost everywhere else around the world, Taiwan’s drug policies are not based on harm reduction through science-based fact. Instead, they are based on politics and supported by ignorance. The drug categories are wrong and need to be reviewed. Certainly cannabis, a Category 2 drug, is a lot less harmful than Ketamine, a Category 3 substance. Of course cannabis is also a lot less harmful than the legal drugs of alcohol and tobacco. Often my Taiwanese friends say to me, “Yes, but you are from the West. We here in Taiwan, we don’t have a history of drug culture and of our leaders being involved in drugs, unlike yours.”
But as usual, the facts say otherwise. It is a historical fact that the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) was involved in drugs and gangs since its inception. Indeed, up until recently, the KMT was involved in the drug trade on an industrial scale in South East Asia and did so for decades.
Indeed archaeologists tell us that the first documented use of cannabis in the entire world occurred right here in Taiwan, 10,000 years ago!
Those who think that “Chinese society” is conservative and “anti drugs,” and that it is only a problem for the “decadent West” should think again. Next door, China is cashing in on cannabis and holds most of the world’s patents for it.
For Taiwan to alleviate and more efficiently deal with drugs, it should adopt better, more intelligent, science-based policies to counter the harm that drugs do (with alcohol and tobacco once again topping the list). At a time of scarce resources and bulging overcrowded prisons, Taiwan should not be sending armies of its youth behind bars as it is nowadays. Building more prisons won’t work. Yet Taiwan does not need to re-invent the wheel: For best practices, look to Sweden, where they actually closed four prisons, not because their crime rate fell, but because they looked more intelligently at alternatives to incarceration.
The economic case for a radical rethink is obvious. A recent report titled “Ending the Drug Wars” by the London School of Economics (LSE) Expert Group on the Economics of Drug Policy stated in its summary that, “It is time to end the ‘war on drugs’ and massively redirect resources towards effective evidence-based policies underpinned by rigorous economic analysis.” I note that Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen obtained her PhD in Law from the LSE. One might I hope that she take note of what her alma mater has to say on the subject and incorporate some of those findings into her policies.
It is largely accepted that the judicial system in Taiwan is broken. In March 2013, a group of 10 independent international experts reviewed Taiwan’s human rights record and made a number of recommendations. Among them were that the courts should reduce the too harsh prison sentences imposed on first-time, non-violent, drug offenders. The group also noted that Taiwan had signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which among other things outlaw the death penalty and underline the rights of defendants to have prosecution witnesses present at their trial. Yet the courts here still largely ignore these conventions, which have been incorporated into domestic law.
The outside world is moving on. With the recent decriminalisation of cannabis in Uruguay, Colorado and Washington State, coupled with the already liberal policies existing in Portugal, Holland and elsewhere, Taiwan should re-assess its “War on Drugs” policies. It has become widely accepted that the whole “War on Drugs” has been a failure. For some 40 years, vested interests around the world have compelled governments to engage in prohibition, which, just like the prohibition against alcohol (or prostitution or spying), was never going to work. It has cost the world trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives and failed utterly to control, regulate and rehabilitate.
Most people, at least those who have access to the right information and know the facts, are beginning to realise the terrible harm being done to their own society by these failed policies. For example a recent study in the U.S. found that almost 50% of black males and 40% of white males had been arrested by the age of 23. Yet the hypocrisy and double standards of government are painfully apparent, such as in the cases involving HSBC and the U.K.’s alcohol and tobacco industries.
No drug is completely risk-free; all come with different levels of risk. But how societies choose to deal with them must be based on science, not emotion. Again, decisions on the matter should be based on scientific facts, not rumors.
But there are also benefits. The use of medical cannabis is widespread and growing. Now that it is becoming decriminalized, more research is taking place. There must be families in Taiwan who would benefit from knowing this. I believe it is criminally incompetent of the medical profession not to help people (especially children) who may benefit from this natural, age-old (and perhaps even originally Taiwanese) plant.
In conclusion, I would urge people to educate themselves about the facts. I would hope that Taiwan’s decision makers will have the intelligence and strength of character to take positive, science-based steps forward. The alternative, which is happening now, is for people to ignore the problem and build ever more prisons and marginalize even larger numbers of Taiwan’s youth. As Albert Einstein once said, “The definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
- For more information, see http://www.amazon.com/The-Secret-Army-Kai-shek-Warlords/dp/0470830182, http://thediplomat.com/2012/06/taiwan-and-the-mob/, and http://www.takaoclub.com/opium/postjapan.htm
For the best resources on all drugs, see http://www.drugscience.org.uk/ and
- For more information, see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/13/charlottes-web-marijuana_n_4261935.html, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tAFu-Ihwyzg, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VPKDkPZyE-o, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNjZqzmNiAc and http://www.cnbc.com/id/36022433
A.R. is a former foreign diplomat based in Taipei.