False assumptions - the case for redefining drug offences in South East Asia

This article was first published in the Singapore Academy of Law Journal at http://journalsonline.academypublishing.org.sg/e-First/Singapore-Academy-of-Law-Journal

In the global debate around drug policy and its interface with criminal justice, there is a wide spectrum of viewpoints. At the one end, there is the idea that the drug market can be minimised, even eradicated, by deterring people from taking part in it. This is a position of many governments around the world. Governments of countries like Singapore attribute the relatively limited scale of the drug market in their countries to what in this article refers to as ‘high deterrence policies’. At the opposite end of the spectrum, it is argued that high deterrence policies (sometimes associated with the ‘the war on drugs’) have been an epic failure and that the best way to manage drug markets is to legalise and regulate them with a view to mitigating the harm caused.

Most countries, however, find themselves somewhere in-between these two extreme points on the scale. Laos and many of its neighbours in the South East Asia region are, in different ways, examples of this category of countries. The social and economic costs of high deterrence policies are evident, yet for a host of reasons, it is difficult for these governments to abandon their high deterrence policies in relation to drugs. There are powerful conservative political blocks that remain favourable to the high deterrence stance on ideological grounds, and a significant segment of public opinion probably demands a ‘tough response’ to drug crime.  There might be a reluctance to acknowledge problems with existing policies (sometimes described as ‘losing face’), but ultimately, there is a genuine belief that high deterrence policies have indeed been effective and are appropriate in given social, cultural, and economic contexts.

This paper puts forward an alternative, which would satisfy constituencies demanding the retention of high deterrence policies, yet avoid many of their costly side effects. This could be achieved by defining drug offences with reference to the role of a person in the drug industry, as opposed to defining drug offences mainly or exclusively with reference to the quantity of drugs that a person is in possession of. This option would allow criminal justice resources to be concentrated on offenders with a leading role in the drug industry while freeing up the vast resources that are currently being spent pursuing offenders who have relatively minor roles.

The full article can be downloaded here