Taiwan’s War on Drugs: Harsh Approach or Tolerance?

Taiwan’s War on Drugs: Harsh Approach or Tolerance?
Photo Credit : AP/達志影像
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At a time where Taiwanese prisons are overpacked with people serving drug-related sentences, a newer, more tolerant approach is gaining popularity.

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In March, Yahoo News Taiwan posted a piece titled “Man suspected of consuming hallucinogenic drugs slaughters a little girl: the drug addiction time bomb is on the verge of explosion" (疑吸毒幻覺殘殺女童 毒癮未爆彈瀕臨引爆點). The article referred to the gruesome murder of a four-year-old who was beheaded in front of her mother. According to the police, the man who conducted the act had a history of mental illness and had been previously treated in a psychiatric hospital. Rumor has it he was also a drug addict, although this has yet to be confirmed. The murder sparked outrage and intense discussions around two controversial issues: the death penalty and Taiwan's drug problem.

The author of the article paints a sinister picture of the situation, stating that Taiwan's drug problem is “spiraling out of control” and that drug users have become a “time bomb” that could detonate at any moment, destroying society. His tone is clearly accusatory: according to him, neither the government nor the people are paying enough attention to the issue.

“When it comes to the damage caused by drugs it seems people are indifferent,” he writes. “You think that since you don't use them yourself, it doesn't concern you at all? And where is the government's resolve to change this?”

The accusations seem a bit excessive. It can hardly be said that no one is paying attention to the “drug issue” in Taiwan: Taiwanese media periodically release articles about the growing population of drug users and the Taiwanese government, as many of its Asian neighbors, has harsh laws regarding drug use and trafficking. Trafficking and mere possession of Schedule 1 and 2 substances will inevitably land you several years in jail – and can even warrant the death penalty. According to the National Police Agency, nearly half of the total prison population (46.3%) was serving sentences related to drugs in 2014.

The Taiwanese government has been conducting an American-type “war on drugs” since the early nineties. It was during that time that drug-related crime and drug quantities seized by the police saw a sharp increase, with the memorable discovery of 336 kilograms of pure heroin in Pingtung County on May 11, 1993 – the largest seizure in the nation's history, with an estimated street value of US$377 million. According to Wu Tung-ming (吳東明), then director of the Investigation Bureau under the Ministry of Justice, the rise in drug trafficking and abuse can be attributed to the nation's “rapid social and economical development, the higher purchasing power of the Taiwanese and Taiwan's pivotal position in the Asian Pacific traffic.”

Twenty years into the “war on drugs,” however, the results are mixed.

The 2009 national survey on health and drug abuse found that between 220,000 and 228,000 people aged 12 to 64 had consumed narcotics during the previous year (1.43% of the general population). In 2014, the National Police Agency announced that police had arrested 40,000 users and dealers, and seized a total of 4,439 kilograms of illicit substances (all types combined). In 2012, a total of 20,915 Schedule 3 drug users were arrested, versus 9,383 in 2010. The numbers keep rising and it is estimated that there are 20,000 new drug users every year. In 2014, the Ministry of Education reported that 1,700 students were found consuming narcotics on a regular basis: one-sixth were high school students. This is, however, less than the preceding years (2,432 in 2012).

The area that is most affected is Keelung, due to it being a port city. It is estimated that a minimum of 5,026 people per 100,000 are drug users. Next in line are Taoyuan (2,266), Miaoli (2,193), Pingtung (2,154), Chiayi (2,112) and New Taipei City (2,069). The drugs that are most used are heroin (Schedule 2), methamphetamine (Schedule 2) and ketamine (Schedule 3). Ketamine is particularly favored among young people for being cheap, fast-acting and having a low potential for addiction.

Along with strict laws, the social stigma surrounding drugs is strong; the press will often present drug abusers as mentally ill and people who are not only a danger to themselves, but also to their families and society. As a matter of fact, the author of the Yahoo news article denounced the current legislation for being too soft on Schedule 3 drug users: if caught, they are to pay a huge fine and must take reeducation courses to learn of the harm caused by narcotics. Many believe the punishment should be more severe and that Schedule 3 drug users should be treated the same as Schedule 1 and 2 consumers.

Where does this severity come from? To understand we must go back to the 17th century – the historical trauma of the Opium Wars. At that time, Imperial China was ruled by the Qing Dynasty and its markets were essentially closed off to Western traders: the Chinese had little interest in Western goods while high demand for Chinese products created trade imbalance. The British East India Company resorted to selling opium from its plantations in India: as a result opium addiction penetrated the Chinese society, from farmers to bureaucrats. The Chinese authorities demanded the British cease their activities and confiscated large amounts of opium. This led to the First Opium War (1839-1842) and the defeat of China, signaling the beginning of the end for the Qing Dynasty, as China lost its power to become a pawn of the West.

Perhaps the vision of drugs today is influenced by these events: narcotics are perceived as a deadly poison smuggled in by foreigners to destroy society from the inside. This reflects on the current legislation, as it was crafted by politicians with the memory of China's humiliation firmly in mind.

Nevertheless, in recent years experts have been insisting on the role of education in the fight against drugs, criticizing the punitive approach. In 2014, the Ministry of Education launched a program to provide medical treatment and reeducation for drug addicts: the program was run by seven experts and benefitted 80 people, 20% of which were minors. Ministry of Health and Welfare Deputy Chief Hsu Ming-neng (許銘能) insisted that such programs also provide financial and psychological aid for the families of the patients and organize activities so as to help addicts reintegrate society. Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Chen Pi-han (陳碧涵) also suggested that schools invite former drug addicts to come and share their experience with the students. He argued that a softer method that directly appealed to emotions would probably be more efficient than a harsh punishment. At a time where Taiwanese prisons are overpacked with people serving drug-related sentences, a newer, more tolerant approach is gaining popularity.

While Southeast Asia is infamous for being one of the most popular destinations for drug tourists, neighbors like Taiwan, Japan and South Korea have embraced a zero tolerance approach toward foreigners that seems to be effective. Bloggers who live in South Korea will often advise their readership not to try anything illegal, including cannabis: if they are caught, jailtime is guaranteed.

The same goes with Taiwan. People who ask about drugs on online forums are often told that it just isn't worth the risk. As one commenter put it, “The weed here sucks anyways.”