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The View from Taichung: DPP on drugs: Not as tough as you think

Man arrested for growing marijuana in his bedroom in 2016.

Man arrested for growing marijuana in his bedroom in 2016. (CNA photo)

The December death of a model at a party in a VIP suite at the W Hotel in Taipei, coupled with a perceived rise in drug use, has the DPP Administration arguing for tougher drug laws. Minister of Justice Chiu Tai-san, speaking to the legislature’s Judiciary and Organic Laws and Statutes Committee, said that he wanted amendments to the drug laws passed by the legislature before the end of April. Thus, the cynical local saying that nothing gets done until someone dies.

The proposed changes call for punishment of already socially marginalized venues such as KTVs, massage parlors, bars, and similar places where drugs are allegedly done. Such noises may play well with certain segments of the voting public, but have little effect on drug use.

Quite the contrary: as numerous studies show, stronger enforcement and tougher punishments for drug use tend to increase the supply of drugs, lower prices, and increase the user base. This information may be found in almost any introductory economics textbook. These effects are so well known that one of the strongest backers of tough anti-drug laws in the US is the private prison industry.

Another absurdity is that Taiwan already has savage drug laws. For example, here in Taiwan the son of an acquaintance of mine is on his way to prison for several years for selling a few marijuana cigarettes to his friends.

The usual sentence just for smoking weed is seven years in one of Taiwan’s prisons. These prisons are so brutal that a former student of mine who served his alternative military service as a prison guard immediately joined the Judicial Reform Foundation when his service finished.

He was in tears in my office, describing conditions inside the prison to me. The results of this regime of authoritarian punishment are predictable, destroying the lives and families of people who fall into its clutches. Just last year, an American living in Changhua killed himself after receiving a "lenient" four-year sentence for growing pot, leaving behind a wife and children.

Yet all this toughness – strict enforcement, punitive sentences, including the death penalty for drugs like heroin and cocaine, and brutal prison conditions, is not preventing the spread of drug use in Taiwan.

As Hsu Liang-yin pointed out in a paper on a similar "moral panic" over skyrocketing Ketamine use several years ago, strict laws have not stopped heroin and methamphetamine use in Taiwan. That is one reason the drug policy advisory council, composed of experts in medicine, crime, and law, was refusing to upgrade Ketamine from a Class III substance to a Class II.

Readers may remember that period, when KMT politicians were beating the drum for more inhumanities to "save our children," including random drug tests in schools. Although it is not conventionally pictured as such, the pushback against those proposals from civil society groups was a great victory for Taiwan's democracy.

Enter the KMT, whose Caucus Convener Sufin Siluko challenged Minister Chiu on issues of medical treatment and rehabilitation for drug users. Sufin is an aborigine and is well aware of the problems of alcoholism and drug use in those communities. His call for rehabilitation actually has strong public support.

In 2012 Gideon Lior and Hsiao Yu-hsu surveyed public attitudes toward rehabilitation of criminals, asking about crime, sex, and drug offenders. Unsurprisingly, support for a second chance was strongest for drug users, but 48.3 percent of respondents were willing to at least consider giving sex offenders a second chance.

Older respondents were also more supportive of rehabilitation and second chances than younger. Hsiao and Lior attribute this to the emphasis on moral education in Confucian society.

The interesting thing about the DPP Justice Minister’s proposed changes is that they address morally marginalized businesses, sites where the moral order of society is perceived to be out of whack, and simply ask them to pay attention to what they are doing. They do not call for upgrades in the status of this drug or that drug, and in fact are quite mild.

Although it is not often remarked on, side by side with the loud regime of strict punishment to restore society’s moral order by scapegoating an outcast is a quiet regime of rehabilitation, forced rehab in the case of repeat offenders. It is important to note that the DPP Administration did not advocate disturbing any of this. Although DPP politicians have from time to time joined the call to punish drug use more severely, by and large the DPP has avoided the KMT’s harsher approaches.

Both the strict and rehabilitative approaches are old. Taiwan’s “War on Drugs” was declared in 1993 by then Premier Lien Chan. In 1994 the Ministry of Justice proposed a focus on rehabilitation, which has been the basis of policy ever since.

There’s a bit of historical irony in all this: Taiwan is famous as the site of Japan’s successful eradication of opium use. By Japanese statistics, opium accounted for anywhere from 45-75% of the islands imports by value between 1864 and 1895.

To address this, the Japanese set up a regime of strict government control of sales, registration of users, and treatment of addicts. The results were clear: in 1900 200,000 kilos were imported into Taiwan; by 1942 that number had fallen to less than 8,000.

If Taiwan really wants to solve its drug problems, it need only look to the past for a viable model.