When the Myanmar Military Almost Decriminalised Drug Use

In early 2017, Myanmar police raided a house in Yangon’s Thaketa township with a warrant to search for drugs. Underneath a Buddhist altar, they found 10 tablets of yaba—a stimulant containing methamphetamine and caffeine. Three housemates, one of whom was the target of the warrant, were arrested and charged under two sections of Myanmar’s 1993 drug law: Section 15, for failure to register as drug users, and Section 16(c), for possession of illegal drugs.

At the time of the raid, a fourth person was in the house: a woman in her 20s who had been hired to come over and style the housemates’ hair. She was also arrested, and when police tested her urine, they found the presence of drugs in her system. Despite having no drugs on her, no prior criminal record, and no apparent connection to the drugs found in the house, she was slapped with the same charges. In early 2018, a judge sentenced all four defendants to 10 years’ imprisonment with hard labour—four for failure to register, and six years for possessing a stash of pills worth less than US$4.

“It was a conviction and a sentence that we were very, very aghast at,” says Sam Roberts, an American public defender who assisted with the hairdresser’s defence as a fellow for the International Legal Foundation in Yangon.

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