Vietnam’s public security minister acknowledged before the country’s national assembly this week that drug-related crimes have increased significantly in Vietnam in recent years and said the country must consider making drug use a criminal offence again.
During Minister To Lam’s national assembly hearing session on Tuesday, questions were raised regarding drug trafficking, reckless crimes, discovery of more and more trafficking routes, and a major increase in users.
According to the minister, the increase is due to a recent change in criminal codes regarding the status of drug users, who under current law are not criminals.
“Do not let the number of drug addicts increase,” the minister said during the hearing.
“Drug traffickers will be happy if the number of addicts increases and drug use increases. Having clear regulations in our laws also facilitates the treatment of drug addicts,” he added.
To Lam said the Ministry of Public Security would study drug prevention methods and would try to include drug use as a crime in criminal codes.
In 1999, the law stipulated that drug addicts be forced to rehab and could even be imprisoned for between three months to two years. After the first offense, sentences ranged from two to five years.
RFA reports published in 2011 quoted human rights groups that likened the mandatory detox centers to labor camps. During their stay in the detox centers, inmates were used for labor and in 2010 they numbered more than 33,000.
The Vietnamese government gradually converted the mandatory centers into community-based rehab facilities in 2013.
About 130 of the converted centers remain in Vietnam and addicts can check in on a voluntary basis.
Lawyer Nguyen Van Hau, deputy chairman of Ho Chi Minh City Lawyers' Association, said that it would not be appropriate to force drug addicts into detention again.
“In the past, the Vietnamese government treated drug addicts as sick patients, so they were forced to [undergo] medical treatment, not administrative penalties,” he said.
“If people commit crimes, such as battery, murder or the illegal trafficking of drugs, these crimes are in the criminal code already. So if the government is now saying drug addicts are criminals, then it is not appropriate," he added.
Dr. Trinh Hoa Binh, a psychologist and sociologist, said the government should help addicts rather than punish them.
“Only by recognizing the drug addicts as sick patients can the addicts actually quit and reintegrate back into the community,” said Trinh.
“No matter what, drug addicts should be treated as sick people, not criminals,” Trinh added.
The Ministry of Public Security reported in 2018 that there were more than 225,000 drug addicts in Vietnam, but some observers believe that the actual number is several times larger.
In the first three months of 2019, the police investigated and discovered more than 6,500 drug cases and arrested more than 10,000 people on drug-related charges.
Trinh said that the government’s desire to criminalize drug use is merely a ploy to control users.
"Once we recognize them as regular citizens, then they will have to be treated as such. If they are being treated as criminals the government can more easily deal with them. They are much easier to catch or summon,” said Trinh.
A woman who requested anonymity who was once interned at a rehab center spoke about her experience.
"When I first walked into the assigned room, I was beaten. After the beating I obeyed their every command,” she said.
“They tossed us a bag of cashew nuts, shouted that we must finish [processing them] in half an hour or we would receive no food. They made us work hard and forced us to complete these tasks daily. Many got beaten. Many passed out. They beat us day and night just so that we would complete what we were assigned,” she said.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Eugene Whong.