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June 24, 2017

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Experts evaluate drug laws in an era of surging substance use and overcrowding

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- The dark legacy of Taiwan's war on drugs is ever-rising drug use and desperately overcrowded prisons. While measures to ease the overflow of inmates get under way this year, experts are weighing the merits and costs of time-honored laws.

A life sentence, like the size of a galaxy, is hard to fathom, even for an inmate serving one. Paul Douglas, a middle child from a middle-class family raised in the middle-of-the-road town of Wokingham, England, pleaded guilty to trafficking 1.9 kilos of heroin out of Bangkok for US$4,000 in 2002.

"I made a very bad decision," said Douglas, 45, who has struggled to find peace, watching his early 30s drift into his mid-40s in gray prison garb, serving life at Taipei Prison for a first-time offense.

His peculiar hobby — collecting news clippings of "bizarre" court verdicts he reads about in Taiwanese newspapers — has only confused his understanding of local justice.

"It makes no sense," Douglas said, comparing his case — a life sentence for trafficking a grade-one narcotic — to a March story in The China Post about 13 military officers sentenced between three to eight months for their roles in an army conscript's death. "What I ask is, does the punishment fit the crime?"

Taiwan's trafficking laws are relics of the 19th-century Opium Wars, when addiction raged along Asia's seafaring trade routes according to Edward Lai, professor at Central Police University. A state-run system of opium licenses, not the laws, eventually quelled the local epidemic, but popular fears that the "nightmare" could return are driving current policies, Lai said.

"The laws and policies for drug trafficking are too harsh," said Lai, a former corrections officer at Taipei Prison, until ten years ago. "However, most citizens support 'get-tough-on-crime' policies, so politicians support those policies to win the votes."

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