Pubdate: Sat, 16 Jul 2016
Source: Straits Times (Singapore)
Copyright: 2016 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd.
Author: Tan Hui Yee


Move targets marijuana use amid prison population boom; some drugs 
may be reclassified for controlled use

Marijuana or methamphetamine users in Thailand may get rehabilitation 
rather than jail under broad changes to the country's narcotics 
policy. The kingdom is reviewing its zero-tolerance approach, which 
has caused its prison population to balloon without actually 
controlling the proliferation of illicit drugs.

Draft legal changes, recently approved by the Cabinet and expected to 
be tabled in Parliament, would emphasise rehabilitation over jail 
terms for drug users and mandate more proportional sentences. They 
will be put in place before the term of the current military 
government expires, Justice Minister Paiboon Kumchaya said this week.

Meanwhile, the authorities are mulling over reclassifying certain 
types of addictive substances and allowing for controlled use under 
medical supervision.

Successive administrations have pushed for harsh - but what some 
critics call insufficiently discriminate - penalties for those 
selling or found in possession of drugs.

But "Thailand has to admit (the whole system) has not been so 
successful", General Paiboon told The Straits Times. He stressed that 
those who manufacture and traffick illicit drugs will still face 
tough penalties. But users will be put through targeted 
rehabilitation programmes overseen by the health ministry and 
interior ministry.

Thailand has had a chequered legacy of drug control. Former prime 
minister Thaksin Shinawatra, for example, launched a "war on drugs" 
in 2003 which Human Rights Watch said resulted in some 2,800 
extrajudicial killings in the first three months of his campaign 
alone. Thousands of drug addicts were also coerced into treatment.

Yet, the country and region remain a large and growing market for 
methamphetamines. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and 
Crime (UNODC), the amount of methamphetamine seized in East and 
South-east Asia and Oceania more than tripled to almost 42 tonnes 
between 2008 and 2013.

Meanwhile, Thailand's prison population has grown from 80,000 to 
350,000 over the past 20 years, with some 70 per cent of inmates 
serving time for drug offences.

Thai prisoners alone make up 40 per cent of the total in South-east 
Asia, even more than in populous Indonesia, according to a recent 
UNODC study. This disproportionately large number is diverting 
resources away from tackling drug traffickers, said UNODC regional 
representative Jeremy Douglas.

As part of Thailand's drug policy review, the authorities are 
examining how some milder addictive substances can be recategorised 
and dispensed under very controlled circumstances, said Gen Paiboon.

This includes kratom, a plant native to South-east Asia, which 
stimulates in low doses but sedates in high doses. Kratom, alongside 
marijuana, is also listed in the fifth - or lowest category - in 
Thailand's current Narcotics Act. Someone convicted of possessing 
kratom can be jailed up to one year and/or fined up to 20,000 baht (S$770).

Another item that could be recategorised is methamphetamines. 
Together with heroin, it is currently classified as a dangerous 
narcotic and attracts the highest penalties. Some 90 per cent of drug 
offenders behind bars were involved in methamphetamines. These 
synthetic drugs were initially peddled to labourers as stimulants.

Gen Paiboon, though confident of this approach, conceded the 
government would need to convince the public the new policy would not 
end up doing more harm than good. People still see methamphetamines 
as an "evil drug", he said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom