Yes, drugs ought to be decriminalised

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The announcement by junta minister for Justice, General Paiboon Koomchya, that he was considering decriminalising Methamphetamines or “Ya Ba” is welcome news. However, we cannot trust the military junta to follow through with the necessary policies which should accompany this. It is also not nearly enough. Other drugs should also be decriminalised.

In the past, criminalising drugs has led to violence and the abuse of human rights. It never works in terms of eradicating drug use and is an obstacle to the humane treatment of those addicted to drugs.

Previous Thai governments have waged so-called “wars of drugs”. The worst case was under former Prime Minister Taksin Shinawat when approximately 3000 people were executed by death squads made up of police and military personnel. Top generals like Prem Tinsulanon were also featured on posters designed to create a climate of fear. Prem was quoted as saying that if you used Methamphetamines you would end up dead. During the Sarit dictatorship public executions of drug dealers took place.

The campaign of extrajudicial killings was not based on any scientific evidence of the relative harm of various drugs and no open discussion in society about this could take place. Figures from the Ministry of Public Health show that the main reasons why Thais die young is due to the following: (these are rough proportions of the causes of early deaths)

  • AIDS: 17% in men and 10% in women
  • Road accidents: 9% in men and 3% in women
  • Cardio vascular and pulmonary diseases, often caused by cigarettes and alcohol: 17% in men and 12% in women
  • Illegal drugs: 2% in men and less than 1% in women

As usual, there is a capitalist bias against illegal drugs when compared to alcohol and cigarettes. This is due to the interests of big business and also the ability by governments to tax these “legal” drugs.

Thai governments have never been serious about tackling the reasons why people turn to drugs, for instance, long working hours, alienation and a lack of opportunities in life. Thailand does not have a welfare state and the present junta are against spending state funds on improving the quality of life of citizens. The neo-liberals in the dictatorship have frozen the minimum wage and are trying to dismantle the universal health care scheme.

When waging war on small time drug dealers, the Big Fish always avoid any punishment. The big players in the drug trade are politicians, well-connected gangsters or high-ranking military or police officers. Sometimes these characters blend into one. Thailand is currently run by a bunch of military gangsters anyway.

Apart from decriminalising drugs, there needs to be a “Harm Reduction” policy to increase the ability of citizens who choose to use drugs to protect themselves. The supply of clean needles and the production of low cost good quality drugs, in a sensible manner, is part of this. If drugs are expensive then users will tend to commit crimes in order to get a supply. They will also need to push more drugs to increase their incomes. So if the government were to produce some drugs and guarantee their quality and safety that would be a good thing.

Another important part of Harm Reduction is to have a free and open society where people can discuss and learn about the effects of drugs and their potential dangers. They can also discuss the benefits too. This is vital if we are to equip young people to be able to make sensible decisions about drugs. They need to think for themselves. They need to be self-empowered.

But today there is no space for open discussion in society and young people are pressurised to take orders from teachers and military men.

My guess is that the junta want to decriminalise Methamphetamines because they know that they do not have the ability to control their use. They do not want to appear to have failed in an attempt to reduce drug use. They may also want to reduce the prison population. But it is hard to read the warped minds of these generals. Some claim that the generals want to make money from the open sales of Methamphetamines, but I doubt this is the real reason. However, what we can say with confidence is that they will not take the necessary measures to reduce harm for drug users or to increase the quality of life for the population and they certainly will not create a climate where open and free discussion about drugs or anything else can take place.

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