11 July 2024

Given the huge difference between penalties for abuse of methamphetamine and for selling the drug, the government’s plan to classify people convicted of possessing more than five methamphetamine tablets as drug traders is a big deal.

“We have set this cap based on academic findings by relevant authorities,” Public Health Ministry acting permanent secretary Dr Kittisak Agsornwong said recently.

The five-pill classification was deemed reasonable by relevant agencies – including the Medical Services Department, Mental Health Department, Food and Drug Administration, Medical Sciences Department, Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB), Council of State, Royal Thai Police, and Office of the Attorney-General – at a meeting last Friday.

The next step is to present the plan to Public Health Minister Dr Cholnan Srikaew, who had previously proposed a 10-pill cap. If the five-pill plan gets the green light, it will be passed into law as a ministerial regulation.


Thailand’s handling of drug abusers, traffickers

Thailand has been fighting the scourge of narcotics for decades. Authorities have declared several so-called wars on drugs, but meaningful victory remains elusive. The Mental Health Department estimates that 2-2.5 million Thais abuse narcotics. Around 100,000 have entered rehabilitation programs in hospitals while others have received therapy at community clinics or private facilities. The youngest person to enter a state hospital for drug treatment so far was just 12 years old.

More than two-thirds of inmates in Thailand are behind bars because of drug-related convictions. In other words, over 200,000 (204,147) of the total 271,967 convicted prisoners in Thailand’s notoriously overcrowded jails are serving time for offenses committed under the Narcotics Act.

The cap dividing drug abusers from drug traders started to drop in the Thaksin Shinawatra government (2001-2006) after police reported that suspects were escaping punishment by claiming drugs in their possession were for their own consumption, not for sale. For methamphetamine, the cap was reduced to 15 pills in 2002.

Last year, then-Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul suggested that the cap should be down to just one pill. However, that idea met with strong opposition. Critics protested that such a harsh approach would pile extra burdens on the police, courts, and prisons without really solving the problem. It would also lead to abusers mingling with convicted drug dealers behind bars, potentially leading them into a vicious cycle of narcotic abuse, they added.

Anutin’s successor, Cholnan, then came up with a more relaxed approach. He proposed that the cap should be 10 pills, as each pill contained only 10 to 20 grams of methamphetamine. Also, the pills are mostly sold in packs of 10.

“So, it’s likely that an abuser will have no more than 10 pills in their possession,” Cholnan said.

He also dismissed concerns that the 10-pill cap would allow drug dealers to walk free by claiming that they were abusers and volunteering to join treatment programs. The new public health minister explained that if evidence showed suspects were actually dealing drugs, they would be convicted of that offense no matter how many pills they were holding.

“The cap is just a guideline. It doesn’t mean you will be able to escape a conviction for trading drugs just because you have fewer than 10 pills in your possession.”

Under current laws, drug abusers can avoid jail by committing to undergo treatment instead. If they refuse attend a treatment program, they will be sent to court, which can send them to jail for up to one year. The court, however, may also decide to send them back to a rehabilitation program.

Convicted drug dealers, on the other hand, face a jail term of between one and 10 years.


Five-pill cap proposed by police

Deputy National Police Commissioner Pol General Kittirat Phanphet, who oversees crime prevention and suppression, said the five-pill cap was reasonable because selling that amount of drugs came with a profit that was too low to risk going to jail for.

“But the profit from 10 pills is tempting enough. In fact, we have found that drug peddlers in communities usually carry this amount of narcotics for sale,” he said. “If they get arrested, they can just claim that the narcotics are for their own consumption.”

Also against the 10-pill cap is Pol Lt-General Panurat Lakboon, assistant national police commissioner and acting secretary general of the Narcotics Control Board.

He points to statistics showing that 12.5 out of every 100 drug abusers end up selling narcotics.


Drug abusers are patients

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes advises Southeast Asian nations to take a public-approach in their efforts to combat narcotics. In response to the advice, Thailand has treated drug abusers as patients since 2021.

Last year, 120,915 drug abusers entered the Public Health Ministry’s drug treatment programs. The vast majority of these – 106,709 – were male.

In Khon Kaen’s Muang district, a local police station is now collaborating with administrative officials to organize community activities as therapy for those trying to kick their drug habits. Every evening, reformed addicts gather to sing songs, play football, or take part in other recreational activities together. The program also spreads knowledge about the danger of narcotics, spurring hope that they will inspire former abusers to quit drugs for good.

Ton (full name withheld), 28, said he had joined the program because he was determined to change his behavior this time so that he could work, earn money to support his parents, and meet his child. He is separated from his child’s mother.

Participants in the program face random drug tests administered by police every two days. If they test positive, they receive a warning and get moral support to regain the determination to say goodbye to narcotics.

While such programs may look positive, not everyone is optimistic about their effectiveness.

Kamnan Song (full name withheld), a community headman based in a northeastern border province, admitted that he was skeptical about voluntary drug rehabilitation.

“Very few agree to take the option,” he said of drug abusers in his own community. “While we know that many were abusing drugs, only one joined the drug treatment program last year.”

The community leader said that with no sign of a reduction in the rampant abuse of drugs, he worries about the youth.

“You know that one methamphetamine pill costs just 20 baht here,” he said.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk