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Southeast Asia: Vietnam Ponders Drug Decriminalization

The Vietnamese National Assembly is considering legislation that would make drug use an administrative violation -- not a crime. Under current Vietnamese law, drug use is a criminal offense, a violation of Article 199 of the country's criminal code, and is punishable by up two years in prison.

But Truong Thi Mai, chair of the Assembly's Committee on Social Affairs, told a press conference last Friday the committee had recommended scrapping Article 199. "Being addicted to or using drugs should be considered a disease, and should only be subject to administrative fines," Mai said. "We cannot jail hundreds of thousands of drug users, can we?"

In actuality, Vietnam does not typically jail drug users; instead, it confines them in mandatory drug detoxification centers for up to two years, or in some centers, up to five years. Local governments maintain lists of drug addicts in their areas and send them to detox centers at their discretion. Few drug users are actually prosecuted under Article 199, so the impact of a decriminalization move would be mostly symbolic.

Still, that would be a good thing, said Le Minh Loan, a police chief and former director of counter-drug efforts in a province with one of the country's highest heroin addiction rates. "I think it makes sense to drop the article," Loan said. "Few countries in the world sentence drug addicts to prison terms."

Vietnamese drug rehabilitation efforts are not particularly effective, Loan said. "The rate of relapse into drug use is very high."

While Vietnam has harsh laws for drug dealing -- 85 people were sentenced to death last year for drug offenses and nine more so far this year -- those laws have had little impact on drug use in the Southeast Asian nation. Harsh enforcement is not working, said Mai. "Many people have been sentenced to death for trafficking heroin, but heroin trafficking is still rampant," Mai said. "The traffickers know that the laws are strict but they are still trafficking narcotics."

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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