by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: realworkhard/CC

WHATEVER THE claims about Taiwan being a progressive nation, differing from neighboring Asian countries, drug policy is an issue where Taiwan is far from progressive. And indeed, in may respects, the Tsai administration’s drug policy is revealing of the sharply conservative undercurrent which persists in Taiwanese politics.

The Tsai administration has vowed to step up the war on drugs in recent times, with stiffer penalties instituted for selling drugs such as Category 3 and Category 4 narcotics. In seeking to crack down on the selling of drugs or the organization of what it deems to be “drug parties”, the Tsai administration has stated it will increase monitoring of social media and instant messaging applications, as well as compile a database of “hotspots” in which drugs are sold. “Big data” will also be used to seek drug sellers and drug users. As such, the government will also compile a database of individuals under 24 caught selling drugs.

Although concern over the threat to individual liberties and privacy by this war on drugs might be raised in other societies, conservative attitudes towards drug usage persist in Taiwan and other Asian countries. Indeed, while much of the world has in recent years pondered liberalization of drug policy, as in talk of the decriminalization of marijuana in America or liberal policies towards drug use in countries as Holland, Portugal, and elsewhere, such ideas have not caught on in Taiwan. To be fair, the Tsai administration calls for lowering penalties for drug users and instead raising penalties for drug sellers, but talk of liberalization of drug policy has generally been dismissed, inclusive of marijuana, even when this suggestion is raised by members of Taiwanese law enforcement citing the ineffectiveness of current drug policy, or with regard to medical applications as medical marijuana.

Premier Lin Chuan examining a December drug bust. Photo credit: CNA

Indeed, with periodic scares about a wave of new drugs affecting young people or the stigmatization of young people as wild drug users, as seen in the notion of a database or the use of “big data” analysis used to profile the young for drug use, Taiwanese society sometimes evinces starkly conservative attitudes particularly with regard to how young people are perceived. The latest scare would be about the spread of “narcotic coffee powder” among young people, as well as the possibility of widespread drug usage by young people in the military.

While young people as sometimes seen as “pure” and “innocent” and in this way above worldly concerns, at other times, social evaluation of young people skews towards seeing them as delinquent, lazy miscreant partygoers and drug users. One recalls, for example, that the social valuation of young people was instrumental in how the 2014 Sunflower movement became thought of so highly in Taiwanese society, but on the flipside, attempts made to discredit the Legislative Yuan occupiers oftentimes focused on the suggestion that drug use and wild sex was what was going on inside the Legislative Yuan. At other times, social views of drug users take the stance that drug users are prone to antisocial behavior or even suggest that some of Taiwan’s high profile murder cases in recent years were at the hands of drug users. Oftentimes these claims are not substantiated.

It is true that the highest rates of deaths from overdoses in Taiwan occur among the young. But based on precedents from attempts to crack down on drugs elsewhere in the world, as in America’s own “war on drugs”, one suspects that Taiwan’s own drug war masks certain systemic inequalities. 48% of Taiwan’s 57,000 inmates are incarcerated on drug related charges, for example, suggesting that similar to America, drug use plays a disproportionate role in criminal incarceration. In 2016, 55.9% of drug related cases were for drugs classified as “second degree”, such as marijuana and amphetamines. 

Further research is probably needed into Taiwan’s prison population and the demographics of drug usage in Taiwan. While frequently cited statistics are usually in the context of rising drug usage among young people, tying back into conservative views of young people are drug-using miscreants, as with America and other countries which have attempted a “war on drugs”, one suspects that it may be the poor or disprivileged minorities which are disproportionately targeted. Certainly, one can point to disproportionate targeting of gay bars and gay clubs, with the perception that these are havens for drug usage. Statistics also suggest that drug usage is actually highest outside of Taiwan’s major cities, in comparatively underdeveloped areas. Regardless. as with other parts of the world, use of tobacco, alcohol, as well as betel nut, remain high in Taiwan, and this causes far more deaths than any other drug. But this is not seen as a social problem because tobacco, alcohol, and betel nut are drugs seen as socially acceptable, whereas even marijuana usage is strictly illegal despite the fact that marijuana is not a drug which leads to fatalities through use.

Photo credit: WikiCommons

Indeed, the comparison with America’s War on Drugs proves apt for Taiwan, seeing as Taiwan’s efforts to step up policing of drug usage in the 1990s were modeled on the American War on Drugs. However, due to increased awareness of the disastrous effects of the War on Drugs in disproportionately targeting minority groups and the poor and with increasingly liberal attitudes towards drug usage among young people, past years have evidenced a trend towards the liberalization of drugs. On the other hand, with the election of Donald Trump, Trump promised to reverse the trend of drug liberalization, claiming that he would put into place stricter penalties for all forms of drug usage, including marijuana, even as he made moves to cut funding to the Drug Enforcement Agency by 95%.

As for Taiwan, no trend of arguments for drug liberalization ever appeared, and no real social debate was particularly had on the differences between “soft” and “hard” drugs, or the effects that harsh drug policies would have on society. Drug usage also continued to be primarily thought of in terms of the dangers of young people using drugs, although this may not correspond to reality. And if restrictions on individual freedoms and privacy are passed in the name of the war on drugs with little questioning, this is revealing of a sharply conservative undercurrent to Taiwanese society.

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