What China can learn from Latin American drug policy

As the world prepares for a global discussion on drug policy at a United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) in April 2016, it is clear that the predicted schism between drug policy reform proponents (spearheaded by some Latin American countries) and those favoring drug policy orthodoxy (largely China, Russia, and their Asian neighbors) is wider than ever.

But at the 2015 Symposium on International Drug Control Policy in Hangzhou, China, expertly co-hosted by the Zhejiang Police College and the East China University of Political Science and Law, we found reason for optimism that both sides can play a constructive role in the debate ahead. This is good news for global drug policy and improves the prospects for a positive outcome at UNGASS2016.

In two days of discussion with law enforcement officers, government officials, and university scholars from 40 institutions and 21 provinces, we participated in a remarkably open and plural conversation on the prospects for improving drug policy, both in China and around the world. Drawing on both the findings of Chinese scholars and practitioners and the participants in the Brookings Improving Global Drug Policy project, we were able to better understand China’s evolving approach to illicit drugs and convey the rationale for reforming global drug policy, now pioneered by countries such as Mexico, Colombia, and Uruguay.

Not like the other

China understands that it has a growing problem with illicit drugs. Globalization, with its attendant increase in cross-border flows, and a growing middle class, which now has greater disposable income than ever before, have contributed to increased use of illicit substances. This largely consists of heroin from Myanmar and Afghanistan, but the proportion of methamphetamine, ketamine, and cocaine users is increasing as well. This is a major change for a country that had largely wiped out drug use after the 1949 revolution.

But unlike reform proponents in countries such as Mexico and Colombia, China experiences very different costs and harms from illicit drug use, and none of the violence associated with drug trafficking in the Americas. The 2010 rate of intentional homicide per 100,000 (a standard measure of criminal violence) in China was one, while similar figures for Mexico (21.8) and Colombia (32.3) were orders of magnitude greater for the same year.

In Latin America, the recent experience of horrific drug trafficking-related homicide rates prompted policy reform proposals focused on reducing violence and strengthening public health approaches to drug use. But as we heard both at the symposium at Hangzhou and at a Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy event in Beijing, the relevant historical reference in China is not drug violence. Rather, it is China’s humiliating defeat in the 19th century Opium Wars and the popular memory of the drug-fueled chaos of Kuomintang rule in the years preceding the 1949 revolution. This difference helps to explain why China has maintained the conservative orthodoxy on drug policy and rejects drug policy reforms advocated by Latin America.

The differences between China and drug policy reform proponents remain stark: China continues to sentence drug traffickers to death. Users can face compulsory treatment—often ineffective, sometimes brutal—though formally users are not sent to prison. In light of its historical experience with drugs, it is also unlikely to adopt some of the milder liberalization measures, such as cannabis legalization, that are becoming more prevalent in the West. In fact, China is determinedly lobbying at the U.N. level to place ketamine on Schedule 4 of controlled substances. Such scheduling would severely restrict access to it despite the fact that ketamine is widely used as the only anesthetic in rural surgery in much of Africa and Asia.

Shifting tides

But Chinese officials also see growing drug use at home as a signal that present policies are not working well enough. The Hangzhou symposium highlighted the growing diversity of opinion among Chinese experts on how to approach domestic drug policy. Some participants openly questioned certain traditional fundamentals (such as the death penalty for trafficking) and expressed support for policies such as methadone maintenance (already in practice in China) and needle exchanges to reduce public health harms. There was also great interest in exploring alternative treatment modalities, particularly for hard-to-treat addictions such as to methamphetamine. And at least rhetorically, there was broad consensus that policies towards drug use at home needed to become more humane if they were going to become more effective.

China will benefit from lessons learned in Latin America and Europe on implementing more humane public health approaches.

And internationally, China’s approach to alternative development policies is not particularly effective at reducing drug production, particularly where it is most concentrated along the China-Myanmar border. In discussions with the Ministry for Public Security in Beijing, we confirmed that China’s approach to alternative development remains focused on national rather than village-level projects, based on a belief that strong country-wide economic growth will pull drug farmers away from poppy production. This plays to China’s great strengths in infrastructure development, manufacturing, and commercial farming, but it ignores the lessons learned from successful cases of alternative development. 

China should not look to Latin America for lessons, as the region is notoriously bad at alternative development, but rather closer to home in Thailand. There, poppy production went from being a major source of income for peasants in the Golden Triangle during the 1970s to almost disappearing in this century. The Thai experience shows that strong national growth needs to be complemented by rural development programs that take into account village-level needs and interests and empower rural populations with education, healthcare, and full access to their rights as citizens. In addition, these programs need to focus on off-farm employment, not just on crop substitution and enabling markets for agricultural produce.

Room to collaborate and to disagree

Despite these differences between China and Latin America, we believe that there is room for all sides to work collaboratively at UNGASS2016 and beyond to improve policies towards drug trafficking and drug use. China will benefit from lessons learned in Latin America and Europe on implementing more humane public health approaches, particularly as they become more prevalent and tested. And given the already important role that China plays in Latin American economies, there is room to introduce alternative development considerations when planning new investments—particularly in countries such as Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia that are major coca producers. 

China will have to accept that the outcome of UNGASS2016 should be a flexible international treaty framework that makes room for countries to experiment with new approaches to addressing drug use. And it will have to recognize that there is a major and likely unbridgeable gap with Latin America on how to approach drug trafficking due to the vastly greater costs this phenomena imposes on Central and South America.