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China´s Drug War: The Temptation To Criminalize Addiction

A Chinese anti-drug soldier inspects a car in the southwest Yunnan province, on June 24, 2015
A Chinese anti-drug soldier inspects a car in the southwest Yunnan province, on June 24, 2015
He Ronggong

-OpEd-

BEIJING — The picture is not pretty: drug-related crime is spreading and deepening throughout China. The latest National Narcotics Control Report notes that the problem increasingly involves new types of synthetic substances, even as China has stepped up its efforts to effectively combat the trafficking and use of illegal drugs.

Drug-related crimes used to be concentrated in frontier and coastal areas, but they've now spread to every corner of China. Government figures show there are 2.95 million drug addicts, but the actual number is believed to be closer to 14 million. In short, China is becoming a country of modern drug production and consumption.

To stem the tide, China has raised its anti-narcotics efforts over the past year to the level of a national security strategy. Both the National Narcotics Control Commission and the Supreme People's Court have held major nationwide meetings discussing the deployment of new measures, and stressing severe punishment for drug-related crimes.

Drugs are obviously quite hazardous to physical and mental health, but they also damage a country's political and social institutions and threaten public safety. Even developed capitalist countries are accustomed to using prison to mitigate the drug problem. But using state punishment for drug abuse is probably the most obvious example of criminal sanctions being improperly applied.

Though it's certainly reasonable for China to adopt a strict policy. The problem is that cracking down won't touch the root of the problem of drug addiction, and can even wind up obscuring the essence of the problem and lead to unsatisfying outcome. The unprecedented attention of China's central government will undoubtedly help to mobilize all social resources in dealing with drugs. But if judicial structures ignore the complexity of drug-related issues, they will end up distorting the central government's policy.

Police officers destroy drugs in China's southwestern Guizhou Province, on June 23, 2015 — Photo: Ou Dongqu/Xinhua/ZUMA

The problem of drugs is two-tiered: substance abuse itself and the crimes that result from it. They are two sides of the same coin. Only if demand exists can there also be illegal smuggling, selling, transporting and manufacturing.

It's human nature to seek an alternate state of consciousness, and taking drugs is the quickest way to do it, British scholar Michael Gossop argues in his book Living with Drugs.

As Chinese society evolves and people have mostly solved their basic survival needs, demand will inevitably grow for ways to enhance their subjective values and self-awareness. Among all animals, humans are the most eager to pursue happiness and a state of bliss. Unless we can confront the desire to alter our consciousness, eradicating drug abuse will remain only an ideal. If we can think about it this way, then we realize that drug use is another social issue rather than something to be regarded as demonic. "The danger of drugs isn't a purely chemical notion, rather more of a legal and moral concept involving a value judgment," one academic says.

The dangers of drugs go well beyond their pharmaceutical properties. But the extent of those dangers is in large part determined by the way a country controls drugs. For instance, if a drug user's fundamental right as a citizen is not respected and he is merely associated with moral corruption, discrimination and prejudice against him will only lead to the drug problem going underground. Once drug use becomes an underground issue, the danger becomes even harder to control.

But if the public would realize that addicts are patients to be treated, then we could abandon prejudice and be open-minded in addressing the drug problem under the national health care system. That way, drug-related crimes could be better controlled.

China's policies with regards to drug-related problems require more good sense and reason, less stubbornness and prejudice. Addiction causes serious medical problems, just like cancer and heart disease. But we never hear calls for anyone to jail cancer patients.

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