The History and consequences of Taiwan’s “War On Drugs”

Written by Elsa Sichrovsky.

Image credit: Drugs by Brandon Giesbrecht/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

Due to Taiwan’s geographically strategic position in Souheast Asia and proximity to the Golden Triangle of the heroin trade, it has had a long relationship with narcotics, dating back to opium smoking in the Qing dynasty. In the 1800s, the opium trade thrived following the Opium Wars in China, bringing in more than half of Taiwan’s revenue by 1892. During the Japanese colonial period (1895-1945), the Japanese established an opium monopoly in Taiwan which benefited them economically while they maintained an appearance of opposition to opium smoking. Through sales to hospitals and pharmaceutical companies around the world, opium composed up to 46 per cent of yearly colonial income from Taiwan until 1904. 

After WWII, illicit drugs were difficult to obtain during the years of martial law imposed by the Chinese Nationalist (Kuomintang) government. However, glue-sniffing, pentazocine, and hypnotics – such as methaqualone, secobarbital, and amobarbital – were used secretly. Narcotics began to be more widely available to Taiwanese following the economic prosperity of the 1960s and 70s, in addition to the social freedom enjoyed after the lifting of martial law in 1987. In 1993, Premier Lien Chan (連戰) launched a heavy-handed crusade to crack down on drug offenders, building on an emotional narrative to protect vulnerable teenagers from the clutches of mind-altering substances. This state-funded anti-drug program reflected the government’s anxiety over enhancing Taiwan’s international image and desire to prove that Taiwan was worthy of participating in the international community. It also functioned as a reassurance strategy to the Taiwanese public at a time of increasing crime rates and a growing underground mafia. 

The legacy of portraying drug offenders as heinous public enemies who must be locked away has continued to shape social perspectives on substance abuse to the present. Issues relating to drug abuse are widely discussed on online forums such as Dcard, which receives over 24 million visitors per month on average, and the even more popular forum PTT, which is visited by over 50 million people monthly. In these discussions, addicts are commonly characterised as low-life vermin. They are seen as scarcely human due to the assumed severity of illicit drugs’ psychological effects. Addicts are derisively referred to as “dú chóng” (毒蟲), which can be translated as “junkie”. Following incidents of violent crime, such as the brutal beheading of a toddler in 2016, local media and the public frequently rush to pin the blame on illicit drug use. Seizures of illegal drugs at airports are often sensationalised with vivid images of contraband and victorious statements from officials, which feeds into the widespread perception that those suffering from addiction are depraved criminals tearing at the very fabric of society. 

These harsh moral judgments fail to consider the varied social and psychological reasons individuals have for turning to illicit drugs. A study of Taiwanese prisoners arrested for drug offences found that 45% had only 7 to 9 years of education and 52% reported physical abuse in their families. Moreover, domestic violence was not even classified as a crime until 1998, which, as the researchers noted, potentially skews the statistics toward underreporting. Notably, only 13% of the inmates had received treatment before their imprisonment, a fact that highlights the lack of accessible and affordable rehabilitation programs in Taiwan. Although social stereotypes link addiction with an immoral lifestyle steeped in criminal activity, those imprisoned for narcotics offences only averaged 1.3 previous arrests.

The Narcotics Hazard Prevention Act separates drugs into four categories based on their psychological effects and perceived “danger to society”. Being convicted of manufacturing or selling Category One narcotics is punishable by death or life imprisonment. The punishments for selling narcotics of other categories are less severe, the shortest possible sentence being five years for trafficking or producing 5 grams or more of a Category Four narcotic.

Using imprisonment as a deterrent and consequence for drug offences has strained the justice system’s resources. There are currently a total of more than 26,000 inmates in Taiwan serving time for drug offences. Drug-related crimes rank as the second-highest reason for imprisonment (as of August 2020). Overcrowding in prisons has become a staggering problem: Taiwan’s official prison capacity is 54, 949, but the current prison population is 60, 956 as of 2019, leaving Taiwanese prisons operating at 114.8% occupancy. UN covenants on human rights have called out Taiwan’s overcrowded prisons for human rights violations. Inmates are provided with less than 3 square meters of living space, and prison resources struggle to keep up with demand. For instance, to receive medical care, prisoners are put on waitlists with a backlog of thousands of prisoners, leaving inmates waiting for months on end to obtain medication and psychological counselling. A lack of medical resources could inhibit the detoxification process for recovering addicts. 

I visited the prisons in southern Taiwan as a participant in several humanitarian projects several years ago. I saw first-hand the conditions in men’s, women’s, juvenile, and high-security prisons, and prisons for drug offenders. Beginning with mandatory short haircuts, prison uniforms, and slippers, and shoulder-to-shoulder confinement at night, on display was a system of stringent rules as well as gruelling penalties that governed even minor aspects of daily life. The convicts were constantly reminded of their loss of personhood, which they were told was the rightful consequence of their crimes. No privacy was permitted during bathing or using the bathroom, which was done in communal facilities under the watchful gaze of a warden. Disobedience was not tolerated. For example, I saw three inmates handcuffed together and forced to jog outside in the heat of the midday sun as a punishment for misbehaviour. In juvenile prisons, consequences for disobedience included being chained to a wall in a corridor for hours at a time or being put into solitary confinement and compelled to copy out entire books of Christian or Buddhist scriptures by hand. Such an environment can hardly be conducive to drug rehabilitation. Instead, it creates additional psychological trauma and increases the risk of returning to a destructive path in life when released from prison. Not surprisingly, a 2017 study put the recidivism rate for drug offenders in their first year following a prison sentence at 67.9 per centwith only a slight improvement in recent years despite millions of dollars invested in anti-drug efforts. 

Ultimately, despite some steps towards promoting rehabilitation over incarceration — such as allowing drug offenders to undergo treatment in exchange for deferred prosecution —Taiwan’s drug policy remains punitive and authoritarian. This tendency is clearly out of step with international trends in criminal reform and psychotropic drug research. A palpable shift is underway in influential countries such as the U.S., which had previously pursued an incredibly costly and destructive War on Drugs. This shift ranges from locking even minor offenders up and depicting narcotics as a public enemy, towards relaxing prosecution and exploring the possibilities of using controlled substances (e.g., psychedelics) in psychological therapy. Based in California, MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, has been researching since 1986 on the potential for using psychedelic drugs to treat mental health conditions, such as combining MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine, commonly referred to as ecstasy) with psychotherapy to enable individuals with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) to process their painful memories.

Another example is the shift in the perception of ketamine, which Taiwanese news reporting has tended to associate with young people committing violent crime and displaying socially disruptive behaviour. Researchers in Taiwan – and several other countries – have conducted studies with promising results. They have used ketamine to treat depression and relieve chronic pain, suggesting that ketamine’s medical potential deserves further exploration, in contrast with the Taiwanese government’s fixation on ketamine as a street drug. 

A Way Forward 

Portugal’s decriminalisation of drugs in 2001 perhaps offers a lesson for Taiwan, where the government continues to argue that incarceration is necessary to prevent addicts from threatening public safety. Portugal’s liberal drug policy includes giving only a warning or small fine for possession of a controlled substance. A local doctor or social worker informs the individual of available treatment options. Narcotics addicts are encouraged, but not forced, to seek treatment. The results have been dramatic: drug deaths have dropped by 59%. Prior to drug legalisation, in the late 1980s and 1990s, Portugal was grappling with a severe HIV epidemic fuelled by shared drug needles and the highest HIV infection rates in the European Union. By focusing on public health rather than the vilification of addicts, new HIV infections from drug use have dropped to 1.5%

Moralistic dehumanising of drug users creates a culture of shame and secrecy around substance abuse. Regulations for controlled substances and addiction treatment should be established in collaboration with medical professionals. Drug policy that is informed by research from the international community would allow for exploration of the potential medical and psychological uses of psychedelic substances. The results of which could be used in combination with psychotherapy to treat psychological conditions — such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety— that current methods are less effective at coping with. A holistic view should be pursued to understand the varied psychological, social, and economic issues involved in how addiction develops, rather than socially exploiting addicts by positioning them to be authoritarian targets of public indignation. 

Elsa Sichrovsky is a writer and English instructor living in southern Taiwan.

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