Turning the Tide with Facts and Science

Taiwan could learn a few things from its diplomatic allies on issues that science settled a long time ago
Photo: Michael Himbeault / Flickr CC

I concluded my article “Time for a Fresh Start on Drug Policies” in June last year by quoting Albert Einstein saying, “The definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Since then, it looks like stupidity has reigned. Now Taiwan has entered a period of “lame duckness.” No politician wants to do anything risky. Everyone is waiting for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to assume command. I wonder, though, if and when that happens, if similar to Barak Obama, the expectation of “change” will in reality be a damp squib. Let us hope not.

A number of articles have stirred me to act. My argument is not merely one associated with drugs but touches upon the demand that each and every one of us should learn and think for oneself, based upon science-based evidence. One only needs to read the readers’ comments underneath Taiwan media science-denying articles to see what nonsense continues to be espoused by the authorities. I could ramble on about other examples of past and present rubbish; such as the belief in phrenology or that homosexuality is unhealthy, will make you poor and lead to an early grave, or that the British commander-in-chief of the British Far East Command in World War II thought that the Japanese “couldn’t fly at night time because they couldn’t see at night” and so on. There is no shortage of hypocrisy. And remember, as I said in my last article, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) was an industrial manager of hard-core drugs for decades. Yet I don’t see any of them being prosecuted.

In any debate, one should ask the other side “What would it take for you to change your mind? What science-based factual evidence would you need to see to agree with the proposal?” And here we come to the problem — no amount of evidence will change their minds. Their minds are mostly closed. It’s not as if in reaching their present opinion they studied the learned journals to establish the most accurate facts and interpretations of the problem. Indeed in Taiwan’s case Minister of Justice Luo Ying-shay (羅瑩雪) actually rejects science-based evidence. What confidence, then, can Taiwanese have in a minister of justice who denies factual evidence? What are your chances of getting a fair trial when the boss thinks like that?

Just to take one example, that of Cannabis being a “gateway” drug, which is countered by the science. But that will not sway those shackled to an unscientific- based mindset. Rather, as in the case of Cannabis and much else, they know full well what the overall truth is, but for political and career reasons they can’t or won’t tell the voting public. They certainly don’t want to discuss it because they know they would be shot down by the science.

The health of the people of Taiwan has little to do with illegal drugs and everything to do with the legal ones of alcohol and tobacco. As usual, most media attention highlights the peripheral symptoms, not the cause. It’s easier to portray reefer madness in teenagers attending nightclubs than middle-aged men and women being addicted to and overdosing on prescription medicines in the quiet of their bedrooms. Or what about groups of (mostly) men with their gan bei culture, drinking and smoking and chewing themselves into oblivion. I read recently that osteoporosis is recognized as a major health problem in Taiwan and that “According to projections to 2020, over three billion USD will be spent treating 29,453 persons having osteoporotic hip fractures. By 2050, the cost will increase to five billion USD for treating 58 896 persons.” Yet Cannabis may help protect against it. Or are these scientific facts also rejected by the minister of justice? Just look at what is happening in those states where cannabis has been legalized. The sky has not fallen down and in fact health and revenues have increased. Again, I cannot overlook the medical help cannabis may be able to provide to the people of Taiwan. My previous article spelled it out and since then more states in the U.S. have legalized medical Cannabis and eased the industries around them. Cannabis business is booming, even China is well positioned. Can I beg those suffering to please be aware of these developments, especially families?

Who does Taiwan listen to when it comes to stuff like this, perhaps their friends? Let’s take a look at Taiwan’s bedfellows: Of Taiwan’s 12 Latin American and Caribbean diplomatic allies, seven have decriminalized possession and/or allowed “medical cannabis,” are considering “loosening marijuana laws” and have reduced prison sentences across the board. On the other hand St Lucia, which is in the process of choosing where in Taipei to locate its embassy, ranks “No. 1 in marijuana use in Caribbean and No 7 worldwide.” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs says it wants “closer ties” with St Lucia! Of Taiwan’s three African allies, most of whose inhabitants are horrendously poor, in Swaziland Cannabis serves as a vital means of survival. Taiwan’s six East Asia and Pacific allies are mostly tiny islands surviving off of fish and foreign aid, washed down with alcohol problems and inter-island drug dealing. Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic ally, the Holy See, of course is spotless, except for that incident last year involving 4 kilograms of cocaine in one of its diplomatic cars! What about Israel, Taiwan’s latest friend? It turns out that Israel is a well-known “bastion of cannabis research” which may be poised to go global. Israel even thinks cannabis might help fight cancer.

By this stage you are probably thinking that the country that smokes the most cannabis in the world is some dreadful hellhole (and is probably a good friend of Taiwan!). Turns out it’s Iceland. Good old civilized Iceland. Indeed it has been argued that Iceland came top precisely because of stupid prohibition — “the country completely prohibited alcohol in 1915” and they only had legal beer since 1989. In the light of all of this, the government of Taiwan and its people should listen to science, not science fiction.

Where is Taiwan going with its present policies? Well shoveling more and more of its youth into prison for drugs, especially for first time non-violent offenders, is not going to solve anything. Giving them unfair trials doesn’t help much either. The latest statistics on the number of prisoners convicted of drug offences shows a doubling in number from the year 1992 to 1993, which by last year showed an almost trebling of the number from year 1992. By the way the statistics for convictions for gambling in Taiwan fell from 532 in 1992 to merely 37 last year. Has gambling been almost eradicated from the island? The way Taiwan deals with drugs, legal and illegal, is completely illogical and doomed to failure. Locking more people up will not help; it will just cost you more.

What can be done? Occasionally, politicians do have the strength to admit they were wrong. And the tide is turning. The public is becoming educated and aware of the nonsense they have been fed. Even law enforcement and former world leaders realize what a waste of lives and money the war on drugs is. Even the head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency looks likely to be sacked. The people have the power. Education, knowledge and the right to vote are vital human rights. I can do no better than insist you watch the late, great, British MP Tony Benn explain these political basics, much of which are relevant to Taiwan today. In particular one of his most famous quotes is as fresh today as it ever was “In the course of my life I have developed five little democratic questions. If one meets a powerful person — Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin or Bill Gates — ask them five questions: “What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?” If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.””

When are the people of Taiwan going to get rid of the politicians who stand in the way of reforming everything from the constitution to the judiciary to education to affordable housing? When will the people of Taiwan insist that they elect politicians who will bring Taiwan into the modern era and the world community by implementing ICCPR and ICESCR and by having fair trials that meet international standards? The Augean stables that the KMT regime saddled Taiwan with look to be cleaned by the DPP — are they up to it?

On drug reform Taiwan can learn from the dozens of U.S. states where the situation is more science led. It can learn from around the world. Realistically Taiwan won’t legalize cannabis yet, but it should immediately downgrade it to a Level 3 drug and make it available for medical purposes. How many of those prisoners clogging up Taiwan’s prisons are incarcerated for cannabis compared to heroin and cocaine? How many are first offenders? Reduce those numbers. Sweden was quoted earlier by a Taiwan official as an exemplar in drug reform. Might I also suggest Taiwan learn from Sweden in its reforms — it closed four of them. South Africa has also done good work in this field. Why can’t Taiwan learn from best practices?

The Taiwanese authorities should implement international law and carry out the 40 recommendations made by the international judicial experts who visited two years ago, which included reducing harsh sentences for drug offences and improving prison conditions. Let me put it another way and address my argument to your pocket: Don’t the people of Taiwan want to save money instead of paying to incarcerate thousands of their sons and daughters for decades? Don’t your kids deserve a fair trial with science-based evidence? Even American taxpayers have cottoned on to that.

The ball is in your court. What are you going to do about it?


A.R. is a former foreign diplomat based in Taipei.

2 Responses to “Turning the Tide with Facts and Science”

April 23, 2015 at 4:58 am, Mike Fagan said:

The author believes that cannabis should be legalized, rather than merely decriminalized. The author further believes that the necessary legislative and policy changes should be initiated on account of an argument about the consequences of recreational drug use illustrated through appeals to science.

He also laments the fact that nothing has changed since he wrote his last article a year ago.

Yet perhaps he is missing the point. The persistence of criminal statutes against the production, distribution and consumption of recreational drugs may have less to do with purported health concerns than with the usefulness of these statutes in maintaining and expanding certain political powers and furthering certain people’s careers and financial interests. So even if the DPP win the next set of elections, and even if they agree with his views about the relative harmlessness of cannabis consumption, there is ample reason to believe that nothing will change.

The drugs themselves and the consequences of their consumption are less important than the political power and resultant benefits their criminalization affords those in (and around) public office.

Further to that point, I would argue that it makes more sense to argue for the decriminalization of cannabis and other recreational drugs rather than their legalization. Legalization would merely plant new seeds out of which political power can grow again through the taxation and probably ever more tangled regulation of the products, whereas decriminalization would not. Decriminalization of cannabis and other recreational drugs would help to weed out the growth of unnecessary political powers.

On the author’s appeal to science, I think this is misplaced: as Hume taught nearly three hundred years ago, the “ought” does not follow from the “is”. And true scientists are exclusively concerned with questions regarding what “is”, and not – in their capacity as scientists – with what actions “ought” to be taken. Although a moral decision may be at least partially informed by factual evidence, factual evidence alone is insufficient since, as Hume pointed out, a moral decision must ultimately follow from distinctly moral premises.

The moral premise in this case is that adults are intelligent agents exclusively capable of acting in their own best interests, since those interests are theirs to judge in the first place. It follows from this that people must be held responsible for the consequences of their own decisions and not be treated like permanent children or the mentally deficient by political masters who care not for the need to limit political powers.


June 22, 2015 at 8:46 am, David Liu said:

I was born in Taiwan and immigrated to Canada at a young age. In Canada, I’m a medical user of cannabis for anxiety and insomnia. I’m surprised that such little attention is brought to this issue given the amount of marijuana leaves I see on the youth’s clothing. I’m currently on a business trip/family visit in Taiwan for 3 weeks and I’ve had to get prescription medicine that I know are terrible for me due to the risk of 7 year minimum prison sentence for possession. Taiwan seriously needs to consider why they even have a prohibition on marijuana. My head hurts.


Comments are welcome, but will be moderated. Remarks containing abusive language, personal attacks or self-promotion will not be published. We encourage healthy discussion and, above all, tolerance of other's views.