11 July 2024

Statistics show that hundreds of thousands of Thais risk going to jail if a draft ministerial regulation supporting Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul’s so-called war on drugs is enacted.

The draft regulation, which classifies anybody caught with two or more methamphetamine pills as a drug trafficker, was completed on February 2. Anutin, who is also deputy prime minister, is keen to present it to Cabinet very soon.

“Illegal drugs are a big problem. We need to tackle it with strong laws,” the minister said.

Anutin’s stance, however, has raised concerns that the much-tougher regulation will likely push more drug users into Thailand’s already chronically overcrowded prisons and give rise to many more problems later.

Currently, people caught with up to 15 methamphetamine pills do not face legal action if they agree to enter a drug rehabilitation program. Such leniency is offered through a narcotics law that went into effect in late 2021.

Anutin, however, believes it is time this approach was changed.

As of January 1, almost four in five (78.67%) of Thailand’s inmates are in prison for drug offences. Of the 206,361 people behind bars for narcotics, 170,860 have already been convicted in final court rulings. This marks a huge jump from the 100,015 drug-related inmates just 15 years ago when only 72,963 were convicted under a final court verdict.

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‘Patients, not criminals’

Verapun Ngammeee, executive director of the Ozone Foundation, argues that drug addiction is actually an illness for some, while for others it is just a bad habit like using too much salt, sugar, alcohol or cigarettes.

“So if this new ministerial regulation actually becomes law, it will be a big mistake,” he said. His foundation promotes education on the dangers of narcotics, as well as health-based policies, so that people who use drugs are treated as patients rather than criminals.

Verapun warned that toughening the law would only result in overcrowded prisons because most drug addicts have little chance of winning court battles.

Last year, 122,727 people underwent drug rehabilitation. This number has dropped significantly each year since 2019, when 263,834 people entered rehab. Of the people who received rehabilitation last year, more than 75% had abused methamphetamine.

Verapun said the authorities should not destroy lives of people just because they are found with two methamphetamine tablets.

Move Forward Party’s party-list MP Dr Wayo Assawarungruang said this move will most certainly reverse Thailand’s constructive approach to separating drug users from traffickers.

“Separating these two groups is necessary. Drug addicts need treatment. They should not be treated like criminals,” he said.

Wayo said studies show that assuming that all drug suspects are involved in trafficking is not an effective way of suppressing narcotics. On the contrary, it turns more drug addicts into drug peddlers.

“If the government pushes ahead with this idea, then it must present evidence or statistics that guarantee that this change will make things better,” he said.

Why do two pills matter?

Anutin said the “plan to punish for possessing two methamphetamine pills” was not without reason. He said that permitting people to get away with possessing more pills allowed drug dealers to evade the law by carrying no more than, say, five tablets each time.

“But if we change the regulations and punish even those with just two methamphetamine pills each, dealers will realize that it’s not worth the effort just to sell one pill at a time,” said Anutin, who leads the coalition’s Bhumjaithai Party.

He added that the Drug Rehabilitation Committee believes that the new ministerial regulation will better protect youngsters from the dangers of drugs.

As for concerns that many lives will be ruined if possession of just two methamphetamine pills leads to jail, Anutin said police officers will be able to exercise discretion when determining the intention of suspects.

He also shrugged off concerns that the tougher regulation could worsen the overcrowding in Thailand’s prisons.

Earlier this month, Jeremy Douglas of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said: “If a one-tablet limit goes ahead, already overcrowded prisons will fill endlessly. There won’t be any space to hold the people classified as dealers.”

However, Anutin says the threat of overcrowded prisons should not distract the government from efforts to eradicate drug trafficking.

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How good is Thai drug rehab?

Dr Sarayuth Boonchaipanitwattana, director of the Princess Mother National Institute of Drug Abuse Treatment (PMNIDAT), said drug addicts can undergo treatment either as inpatients or outpatients, depending on their condition.

“Our program focuses on strengthening the body and mind, as well as engaging the family,” he said.

Patients may be prescribed methadone to help them give up opium or heroin. Those addicted to methamphetamine or crystal meth will be given medicines to help get over their withdrawal symptoms. After undergoing a course of medication, the addicts will undergo rehabilitation, as it takes time for long-term users to get over their psychological dependence on narcotics.

A multidisciplinary team comprising doctors, nurses, psychologists, pharmacists and social workers are on hand to ensure each addict is given the best treatment.

“The family also plays a role in the patient’s care from the beginning,” Sarayuth said.

He said that families played an important role because eventually, the patient needs to return home to their family. The center treats inpatients for no more than a year.

Sarayuth said rehabilitation is based on the FAST Model. The F is for “family” while A is for alternative treatment activities, such as vocational training that patients will receive to realize their value. The S is for “self-help”, so patients know how to help themselves and also others, while T stands for “therapeutic community”, which in this case stands for the community built in drug-treatment venues.

“Once the patient completes our program, their chance of returning to drug use is very low,” Sarayuth said confidently.

He said his institute collaborates with village health volunteers, health promotion subdistrict hospitals and local administrative bodies in monitoring former patients’ behavior to help them stay away from narcotics.

Currently, PMNIDAT uses the DMS Telemed application to serve patients who need to kick their drug habit and have enough discipline to do so with a remote helping hand.

By Thai PBS World