Is Thailand a new approach to the war on drugs?
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.
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.