Pubdate: Tue, 21 Jun 2016
Source: Bangkok Post (Thailand)
Copyright: The Post Publishing Public Co., Ltd. 2016
Author: Surasak Glahan
Note: Compiled by Surasak Glahan This is a compilation of articles 
previously published by the Isra News Agency.


The Justice Ministry's proposal to remove methamphetamines, or ya ba, 
from the illicit dangerous drug list is a bold attempt to tackle 
chronic drug problems in society. The move, as revealed last week by 
Justice Minister Paiboon Koomchaya, involves proposing an amended 
version of the narcotics law which would in effect destigmatise both 
drug users and small-time sellers to allow them reclaim their lives. 
It has attracted a mixed response.

The bill, however, states punishments remains unchanged for drug 
dealers and those in possession of 15 methamphetamine pills or more.

Currently, drug users and small-time dealers, many of whom are poor, 
are the demographic most likely to face harsh punishment such as 
imprisonment for possession of small amounts of meth.

The law does not give an enabling environment for drug abusers to 
come forward and seek treatment as they fear being penalised by 
society due to the stigma that comes with the drug.

For decades, methamphetamine has been stigmatised by the various 
names it has appropriated. From ya khayan (energy pill) in its early 
days to ya ma (horse pill), the drug was named ya ba (crazy pill) in 
1996 when veteran politician Sanoh Thienthong was the public health minister.

The labelling since then has delivered a threatening message to the 
public that the drug sends users into an "uncontrollable" state of mind.

As a result of such labelling, methamphetamine has been seen as a 
threat that needs to be eliminated. Law enforcement in Thailand has 
primarily been through the criminal justice system to tackle the 
issue, such as policing, incarceration, mandatory drug testing and detention.

The labelling has also been anchored by the most influential strata 
of society, from state agencies to the media, and influential figures 
to well-known organisations. It has collectively formed a negative 
view in the eyes of the public towards drug users who in return face 
criminalisation and alienation from society.

This has led to harsh penalties and aggressive law enforcement 
without any regard for the social context. So far, the approach has 
failed to solve the problem.

Even though the state has invested heavily in prevention and 
crackdown, the numbers of drug users and dealers have increased 
exponentially, according to a study led by Sangsit Piriyarangsan, 
dean of the College of Social Innovation at Rangsit University.

Meanwhile, costs of related treatment for drug users have been cut. 
Since 1999, the annual average spending on prevention and crackdown 
efforts stands at roughly 5 billion baht.

This means a total amount of 91 billion baht has been spent over the 
past 16 years. On the other hand, the number of drug offenders has 
more than doubled in the past decade, from 100,105 in 2008 to 230,074 in 2015.

This indicates the tried and tested measures of solving addictive 
drug problems do not work anymore in Thailand than they do elsewhere 
in the world. Health advocates and several development agencies have 
recommended a new approach that emphasises more on prevention, 
voluntary rehabilitation and treatment. They have reiterated the need 
to treat drug users as patients - the approach proposed by Justice 
Minister Paiboon in his address at the 2016 UN General Assembly 
Special Session on Drugs recently.

Wanchai Wattanasup, former dean at Khon Kaen University, said the 
traditional policy has in fact boosted the price of the drug and the 
number of abusers.

Supatra Nakaphew, a member of the now-defunct National Reform Council 
and a health advocate, suggested that the government needs to impose 
strict law enforcement against major dealers and producers of illicit 
drugs because they are the groups who are rarely brought to justice. 
She also suggested the adoption of a health approach to drug users 
and end criminalisation against them.

This alternative measure can help give them treatment and 
rehabilitation and reduce health risks such as HIV transmission 
through unsafe drug injection. In her opinion, compulsory 
rehabilitation should be scrapped, while all related parties are 
allowed to be involved in the process to encourage drug users to 
voluntarily seek treatment and rehabilitate.

At a seminar on the topic last year in Udon Thani, Mr Sangsit pointed 
out that the country's policy to tackle the spread of 
methamphetamines had mainly affected low-income people, as drug use 
is common among them.

More importantly, law enforcement officers do not apply sensible 
judgements when tackling the problem, said the academic. For example, 
putting someone who possesses just one or two tablets in jail does 
not seem like it is a proportionate punishment.

Apichai Mongkol, of the Department of Medical Sciences, said there 
had been a misconception about meth, highlighting that the state's 
policy had made the drug look extremely dangerous while health 
researchers have tended to look at the negative sides of it when 
conducting research. Several studies which suggest that the drug 
damages the brain are not totally accurate, he explained. 
Methamphetamine actually improves a user's brain function. An 
overdose of meth however does damage to the brain.

Other addictive substances that could be damaging to health and 
consciousness, such as tobacco and alcohol, have not been stigmatised 
as badly as methamphetamine, Mr Apichai said.

There is a need to re-define addictive drugs, especially 
methamphetamine, to distinguish the differences between proportionate 
use and excessive use.

Re-defining is a process toward legalising the substance and 
decriminalising drug users, making the drugs part of the state's 
control on production, distribution and taxation.

At the same time, this new measure will give drug users and previous 
users a new lease of life with career opportunities, better education 
and better treatment.

Re-defining the drug will also change the entire law enforcement 
process. This means interrogators, police officers courts, lawyers 
and public prosecutors will all treat drug users as patients, not criminals.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom