Vietnam's new drug law confuses courts

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Judges say they have no way of implementing a new regulation transferring the power to put drug offenders in rehab from People's Committees to the courts

Drug crime convicts cheers during the "Bringing Music into Hospitals" charity concert, organized by a group of local artists to mark World Aids Day at an official center for the treatment of drug addicts in Hanoi/PHOTO: AFP

Police have warned that an increase in crimes committed by drug users may be on the way as a confusing new regulation may prevent repeat offenders from entering rehab, setting them free in the community without proper treatment.

"Ho Chi Minh City police are very concerned about this," said Phan Anh Minh, deputy director of the HCMC Police Department. "Compulsory rehabilitation may be hindered because the Law on Handling Administrative Violations is taking effect without any decree or circular on its implementation."

"From January 1, we have been living with [drug] addicts, petty thieves and potential criminals because of a lack of disciplinary measures," he said.

The Law on Handling Administrative Violations, which took effect on January 1, maintains that repeat drug offenders must go through compulsory drug rehabilitation for 1-2 years if they relapse after completing community rehabilitation upon the first offense.

However, the law transfers the power to send them to compulsory rehab from local People's Committee to district-level courts and judges say they have not been made aware of the new regulation and have no way of implementing it without the proper government procedural guidance, which has yet to be issued.

Thus, drug addicts may not receive the treatment they normally would.

On top of this, police are already worried that crime will surge at the year's end and during the Tet (Lunar New Year) holiday, which falls on January 31, as is traditionally the case when criminals scramble like everyone else to have extra money for the festival and many fall into gambling debts due to traditional Tet games.

Police say this will only be worse if repeat drug offenders are out on the streets instead of in rehab, which may happen if court judges can't properly issue decisions sending them to compulsory treatment centers.

Drugs and crime

Vietnam's drug laws are among the toughest in the world. Under its penal code, anyone convicted of trafficking, illegally producing or transporting 100 grams or more of heroin or cocaine can be sentenced to death.

Despite the tough punishment, the proportion of drug users involved in crimes remains high.

"Many of them [drug users] deal drugs in order to have money to buy drugs for themselves," Lieutenant colonel Do Van Lieu of the District 12 drug-crime police told Sai Gon Giai Phong (Liberated Saigon) newspaper.

According to the city's social affairs department, of the 271 known drug users caught for crimes by last September, 111 were involved in drug smuggling, and the rest involved robbery.

Major Le Huu Phuoc of District 8 police said crimes committed by drug users were increasing in his district.

"Up to 60 percent of crimes involved drug users in 2013, up from 40 percent in 2012," he said, adding that most drug users were involved in robbery and other forms of property theft.

According to the city social affairs department, the city has 13 rehabilitation center offering treatment for about 9,000 drug users each year.

However, only 6,000 of them returned home after release and local ward-level authorities have only been able to monitor some 3,000 people, with a third of them unemployed and the rest with unstable or temporary jobs.

Legal loopholes

Last week, the HCMC social affairs department advised the city administration to seek central government permission to maintain the previous procedures of admitting relapsed drug users to rehab centers.

The proposal was made as the Law on Handling Administrative Violations took effect January 1, granting the judge of district-level court to issue compulsory rehab decision, without relevant procedures for implementation.

A leader of the HCMC anti-drug crime police department said it was necessary to admit heavy drug users to compulsory rehab centers.

"First, it offers treatment to the addict and helps them recover their health. Second, it reduces the threat of robbery," he said.

"There have been several serious crimes caused by drug addicts under the influence. Drug influence can cause a number of unexpected problems for social safety," he added.

However, under the new law, the people responsible to issue compulsory rehab decisions are not aware of the issue or how to carry it out. They are also worried it will cause additional paperwork and bureaucratic nightmares they simply don't have the manpower or time to deal with.

"HCMC courts have to handle one fifth of the total cases nationwide," one judge who requested anonymity said. "They can not handle the extra new task."

Nguyen Thi Kim Thoa, head of criminal and administrative law department at the Ministry of Justice, said the Supreme People's Court has asked for further instructions from the National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, on drafting relevant guidance documents.

"The National Assembly's Standing Committee is expected to give instructions at its first meeting in 2014," she said.

Meanwhile, an official at an institute under the Ministry of Justice said he was among the drafters of relevant sub-law documents to be issued by the Supreme People's Court. He assured Vietweek that a complete draft is being assessed.

"It is expected that the National Assembly's Standing Committee will discuss the draft and approve it in March," he said, adding that the draft had been sent to central governmental agencies for assessment and had just received a response recently.

Meanwhile, many relapsed drug users who would have normally been admitted to treatment centers may never be admitted rehab even after the sub-law documents take effect.

Nguyen Thanh Luong of Ben Tre Bar Association said that according to the Law on Handling Administrative Violations' statute of limitations terms, a relapsed drug user will not be admitted to a compulsory rehab center if he/she is caught more than three months after the violation.

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