Pubdate: Thu, 07 Jul 2016
Source: Bangkok Post (Thailand)
Copyright: The Post Publishing Public Co., Ltd. 2016
Author: Gino Vumbaca
Note: Gino Vumbaca is president of Harm Reduction Australia.


Thai experts have rightly commented on the value of treatment and 
health-centred approaches.

While it may always be best to be prudent when commenting on the 
domestic affairs of another country, there are times when issues 
become far too important to stand silently by and politely observe 
such custom - the current debate on laws governing methamphetamine 
use in Thailand is one of those occasions.

Drug policy is a dynamic and complex arena and for too long countries 
have overly focused on investments in law enforcement agencies to 
address drug use. Whilst no one denies the importance and legitimacy 
of law enforcement agencies, its lead role in the drug area is an 
approach that does little to help everyday people and families. 
Instead, it increases the likelihood of families becoming collateral 
damage in an ever harmful war on drugs. Nearly all countries agree 
that arresting and imprisoning people who use drugs has terrible 
consequences yet when discussion turns to evidence based reform there 
is little progress and movement towards a health based response and 
leadership on the issue.

The courage of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's government to 
publicly discuss what many know is the failure of the current policy 
approach needs support, not silence, from those that analyse, 
evaluate and understand the evidence. Those in senior positions in 
Thailand have rightly commented on the value provided by treatment 
and health centred approaches when compared to the current approach 
of punishment and prison.

Thailand, like most countries, including Australia, suffer from what 
can be best termed a "Frankenstein Factor" (with apologies to Mary 
Shelley). This is a factor that occurs as a result of the campaigns 
that make the public ever fearful of drug use and the people using 
drugs. Unfortunately it also has to be said that far too many 
politicians around the world have supported these fear campaigns 
because it suits their immediate political interests. However, it is 
an approach based on the false premise that any drug use is bad, 
problematic and somehow evil, when the reality is that problems only 
occur for a relative few, and for many of these people treatment can 
be a viable and effective option.

Today this Frankenstein like monster we created wreaks its vengeance 
on society by unleashing a series of health, social and economic 
disasters. Our prisons overflow, corruption is rife and harm is 
widespread. Yet to admit that the monster is our own creation is a 
decision that becomes too difficult for many politicians and so the 
ever escalating problems continue. Like any war, the frontline is 
littered with bodies, broken dreams and distraught families and as 
always happens, truth also becomes a casualty. Just as occurs in the 
tale of Frankenstein, the longer we wait to confront the monster then 
the harder it becomes for the public to accept the real truth.

The first step to solving a problem is admitting there is one. So 
together we must realise that the real problem is not the use of 
drugs, it is the fear and the subsequent belief we created that the 
criminal justice system is the answer.

To counter this Frankenstein Factor, all national governments must 
embark on a public education campaign to help the public understand 
that the current approach to punish every drug user is not only 
extremely costly but is also ineffective and destroys many lives and families.

Part of the reason that so many people in Australia and around the 
world look at Thailand with such admiration is the incredible level 
of compassion and tolerance its people show. A remarkable trait that 
has undoubtedly led to the calls from some for a response to drug use 
that is more humane, compassionate and stops treating drug users as 
criminals. The burgeoning prison population, especially amongst 
women, has also surely made many Thais uncomfortable with the 
continuation of this punitive approach towards people who use drugs. 
Thailand with its strong commitment to develop a comprehensive 
community based and voluntary treatment system with a skilled 
workforce presents a far better option.

A drug-free world may be a nice ideal but it should never be sought 
on the back of demonising people with complex social problems or 
ruining lives because some choose to use drugs at some points in 
their life's journey.

Portugal, which opted for a shift to a health-led response to drug 
use, provides important lessons. The new approach did not destroy the 
lives of everyday Portuguese people, in fact the freeing up of 
resources from bloated law enforcement budgets and overwhelmed court 
and prison systems provided more for education, treatment and 
economic programmes.

Confronting Frankenstein will not solve all of our drug problems. 
There will still be problems, but to treat everyone who uses drugs as 
a threat to society is simply inhumane. Imagine the outcry if 
governments decreed everyone who drinks alcohol had to be punished as 
if they were a drunk driver, a domestic violence perpetrator or a 
criminal because others who drink engaged in those behaviours.

Countries are looking on at this debate and many are hoping that 
Thailand becomes the leader we know it can be on this issue.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom