by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: james9052311/WikiCommons/CC

TAIWAN AGAIN PROVES that it is far from a liberal country on drug policy with the controversy following the arrest of Taiwanese independence advocate Lo Yi (羅宜) on charges of using cannabis. For his part, Luo alleges that he was targeted by Taipei mayor Ko Wen-Je for attempting to convince Ko to sign the petition calling for Taiwan to hold a referendum on what name it should participate in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics under while Ko was riding a bus. Such incidents eventually led to Ko to stop taking public transportation, to avoid being solicited by petitions for political referendums.

According to reports in the Chinese-language Mirror Media, Lo was implicated by a 29-year-old man surnamed Chien alleged to have sold pot to him in 2016. Lo is currently appealing drug charges that he sold cannabis and LSD, an appeal which has made its way to the Supreme Court. Chien has been sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Supreme Court of the ROC. Photo credit: 象心力/WikiCommons/CC

As in past cases involving so-called “bad behavior” by youth activists, such as arrest on drug charges or sexual scandals, Taiwanese media has harped endlessly on Lo’s political activism and his arrest. This would be the other side of the valuation of student activists in the media as a “pure” and noble social force which takes on dangerous, even controversial actions for the good of society—that in any cases of breaking the law by youth activists, suddenly the media turns on them and acts as though their actions are wholly invalidating of any political causes they stand for.

Given its lack of recognition by most members of the international community, Taiwan is a country which has historically pursues liberal social causes as a way to boost its international prestige and credibility. That is, Taiwan wishes to show members of the international world that it is a good citizen, even if unrecognized, and that it has not used its lack of formal recognition to become a haven for international crimes. This would be a way of making its case for admittance to the international community.

However, drug policy is one aspect in which Taiwan has not followed suit with politically progressive countries. Rather, Taiwan instead plays up that it is a country which is harsh on drugs in order to try and garner international credibility. This has led to questionable human rights actions in the past, such as sending individuals accused of drug dealing back to the Philippines, when many countries now refuse to do so. Namely, drug dealers face the possibility of extrajudicial execution under current Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war and Duterte is accused of using his drug war as a means of eliminating political rivals in the name of fighting drugs. Taiwan has reacted strongly against claims by Duterte that Taiwan is a source of drugs entering the Philippines in the past.

So, too, then with both highly conservative social attitudes towards drug use and highly punitive legal measures against drug users or sellers. For example, a recent video released by the Facebook page “420Taiwan” would stir widespread discussion with a man surnamed Lin sentenced to twelve years in prison for selling drugs discussing how as a result he would not see his son grow up. Even after release, drug users face restrictions on their freedoms going forward.

The video in question. Film credit: 420Taiwan

Ironically enough, drug use is actually widespread in Taiwanese society, seeing as caffeine, alcohol, and betel nut are legal substances that affect users’ psychologically. But as with other parts of the world, these substances are socially accepted and not socially stigmatized or punished. One also notes that, despite the cultural imaginary being otherwise, statistics suggest that drug use in Taiwan is not highest among young people in urban centers, but is highest in the countryside, suggesting that drug use may be highest among workers who use drugs to compensate for occupational injuries. With this, as also seen in the current opiates crisis in America, one suspects that because drugs are illegal, this leads to a failure to regulate drugs, contributing to their dangers.

Yet such social attitudes are not likely to change anytime soon. Cracking down on drug usage or presenting the image of doing such remains a popular way for politicians to score points and social attitudes remain conservative—one observes that there is no real drug legalization movement comparable in size or scale to other advanced democracies. This would be another case in point.

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