Is Thai­land a new ap­proach to the war on drugs?

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page -

THE Thai jus­tice min­istry’s re­cent plan to de­crim­i­nalise yaba has sparked a de­bate over whether the gov­ern­ment has thrown in the towel on the wars on drugs. Af­ter 20 years of suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments tak­ing a fa­mously harsh ap­proach in the fight against drugs, con­ser­va­tive voices are ques­tion­ing whether de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of yaba would mean the cur­rently lead­er­ship has cho­sen to go soft on of­fend­ers.

Such per­cep­tions are mis­guided. In fact, re­form of na­tional nar­cotics poli­cies are im­per­a­tive as the re­pres­sive and deadly war on drugs which has fo­cused on sup­pres­sion has proven to be in­ef­fec­tive.

The jus­tice min­istry plans to re­vise the Nar­cotics Act, while re­clas­si­fy­ing yaba, or metham­phetamine pills, to a less se­vere cat­e­gory as part of its ef­fort to re­think its ap­proach to drug of­fences.

Yaba makes up more than half of all drug-re­lated of­fences in Thai­land. It is listed in the most re­stric­tive cat­e­gory, along­side heroin, and the max­i­mum penalty for those charged with deal­ing, man­u­fac­tur­ing or traf­fick­ing is the death sen­tence.

De­spite the crit­i­cism, an over­haul of the nar­cotics law, in­clud­ing the re­clas­si­fi­ca­tion of cer­tain types of drugs, is de­sir­able.

Of course, abuse of yaba or any kind of nar­cotic drug is a crim­i­nal of­fence. How­ever, the pun­ish­ment should be pro­por­tion­ate and af­ter 20 years of treat­ing yaba as the most se­ri­ous cat­e­gory of drug with stiff penal­ties it is time to re­bal­ance the ap­proach.

At present, prisons are crowded with yaba-re­lated in­mates. Un­for­tu­nately, a ma­jor­ity are ei­ther users or small-time deal­ers. It means that de­spite the hard­line ap­proach, big-time deal­ers and pro­duc­ers have man­aged to avoid ar­rest and sup­pres­sion, leav­ing the small fish to bear the brunt of the pun­ish­ment.

The re­clas­si­fi­ca­tion would al­low am­phet­a­mines to be used med­i­cally, in­clud­ing in the treat­ment for metham­phetamine and yaba abuse, and al­low those caught abus­ing the sub­stances with­out pre­scrip­tions to be given a sec­ond chance by en­cour­ag­ing them to seek treat­ment.

The re­sult of the zero-tol­er­ance poli­cies fo­cus­ing on sup­pres­sion rather than pre­ven­tion is clear – the au­thor­i­ties have lost the bat­tle. Gov­ern­ments spend more than 10 bil­lion baht a year on the prob­lem, but the level of drug abuse has not been re­duced. About half the jus­tice min­istry’s en­tire bud­get goes to the Cor­rec­tions Depart­ment, where more than 70 per­cent of the in­mates are jailed on drug-re­lated cases, with too lit­tle be­ing spent on pre­ven­tion and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion.

Prison has not re­duced the num­ber of drug users in Thai­land, with over 60pc of in­mates fail­ing to change their be­hav­iour af­ter in­car­cer­a­tion. Worse, the ex­pe­ri­ence be­hind bars leaves a last­ing stigma on in­mates, re­gard­less of the ex­tent of their of­fence.

A draft of the Nar­cotics Bill is now be­ing de­lib­er­ated by the Coun­cil of State. Once it clears that hur­dle, it will be sent for de­bate and ap­proval in the Na­tional Leg­isla­tive As­sem­bly.

The NLA will have to de­bate the de­tails of the law in­clud­ing the an­nex pre­scrib­ing the nar­cotics list in each cat­e­gory to clas­sify the level of le­gal pun­ish­ment.

Un­der the draft law, penal­ties for drug users and sup­pli­ers would be re­duced. Drug users are likely to have more op­tions than go­ing to jail, such as un­der­go­ing re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion or com­mu­nity ser­vice if they com­mit low-level of of­fences.

Of course, re­mov­ing crim­i­nal penal­ties for users will not fix the over­all prob­lem.

Drug re­form, how­ever, re­quires a new strat­egy to dis­tin­guish the real deal­ers from the vic­tims by in­cor­po­rat­ing pub­lic health and hu­man rights ob­jec­tives to take against the real cul­prits and pro­tect the rights of the vic­tims.

In­stead of hav­ing po­lice sup­pres­sion lead the nar­cotic pol­icy, the gov­ern­ment should in­stead in­cor­po­rate a pub­lic health ap­proach by en­cour­ag­ing users to un­dergo re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion.

Yaba makes up more than half of all dru­gre­lated of­fences in Thai­land.

Users should be dis­tin­guished from deal­ers and treated as pa­tients, not crim­i­nals. The treat­ment should be based on the sci­en­tific ap­proaches, as some users can­not just quit the drug with­out ther­apy.

The dis­tinc­tion be­tween users and deal­ers would en­able the po­lice to fo­cus their en­ergy on ar­rest­ing the big-time deal­ers and pro­duc­ers who are the root cause. The laws should also pre­vent some of­fi­cers from abus­ing their power.

Mean­while, the pub­lic should have a re­al­is­tic un­der­stand­ing about those jailed for drug of­fences to help them re­cover and re­turn to so­ci­ety with­out prej­u­dice and stigma.

Photo: AFP

Seized metham­phetamine pills are crushed and de­stroyed by a steam­roller dur­ing a cer­e­mony to mark the UN’s In­ter­na­tional Day Against Drug Abuse and Il­licit Traf­fick­ing in Yan­gon on June 26, 2015.

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