Two tablets of methamphetamine: that’s all it would take for Thai authorities to charge and imprison someone as a drug dealer under new proposed regulations recently announced by the country’s Ministry of Public Health.
Anutin Charnvirakul, Thailand’s Minister of Public Health and deputy prime minister, told an addiction treatment and rehabilitation committee last week that he would toughen drug laws so that anyone found in possession of more than one meth pill—known locally as “yaba”—would be viewed as a dealer rather than a user, and therefore subject to harsh penalties including imprisonment.
Current laws state that those found with 15 or fewer pills in their possession are regarded as having them for personal use, rather than intent to sell, and are therefore subject to rehabilitation rather than severe convictions. But Anutin believes dealers are exploiting this as a loophole—one he wants to close.
“The changes to the ministerial regulation is to address social problems in a definitive and effective way and to curb the spread of yaba pills,” he said on Feb 2nd.
“No more than one pill,” he said.
The proposed regulations, which are pending cabinet approval, threaten a major escalation in the government’s war on drugs, as well a sharp reversal of policies introduced in 2021 that sought to take a preventative rather than punitive approach to illicit substance use.
With yaba pills flooding the country and its prison population already overcapacity, experts are worried the heavy-handed regulations could have major ramifications for individuals across Thai society.
“Significant drug policy reforms came into effect in Thailand in 2021 to scale down penalties, target punishment at people playing high-level roles in the drug trade, and take a health-led approach to drug use,” Gloria Lai, Asia regional director at the International Drug Policy Consortium, told VICE World News.
“It is very concerning to now see the Ministry of Public Health propose changes to scale up penalties that will inevitably punish more people who use drugs, instead of proposing improvements to health and harm reduction measures.”
In an apparent attempt to downplay concerns that such laws might lead to a surge in arrests and the further overcrowding of prisons, Anutin noted that police will “still have the discretion to look at the intent, look at the behaviour” and decide on a case-by-case basis whether to charge an individual. But in a country where international rights groups have long raised concerns about corruption, drug reform advocates are worried that the new regulations could make small-time users easy targets for soliciting bribes, as well as meeting police quotas.
Supot Tangsereesup, former drug user and current group manager at the Association to Promote Access to Health and Social Support (APASS), said corruption could worsen if the new law is passed.
“Each police station has to reach a certain quota of arrests,” he told VICE World News. “So this new law will be used as a weapon to track down those who have criminal history with drugs, giving them more room to pursue them with new charges.”
“It’s going to be a disaster for society.”
VICE World News approached Thai government spokesperson, Anucha Burapachaisri for comment, but did not receive a response at the time of publishing.
Thailand’s synthetic drug market is thought to be among the largest in the world, with the country consistently ranking first in Asia for drug-related arrests and meth seizures. In the past two years, both the frequency and size of those seizures have reached record highs, as political instability in neighbouring Myanmar fuels a resurgence in the Golden Triangle drug trade and huge quantities of illicit substances pour into Thailand via its northern border.
A collision between widespread drug use and hard-fisted drug policy has also contributed to the country having the largest prison population in Southeast Asia. A recent report from the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) found that as of December 2021, prisoners incarcerated for drug-related offences in Thailand accounted for almost 82 percent of the country’s prison population.
The Thai government has made efforts to address this crisis. In late 2021, in an attempt to reduce the numbers of inmates in the nation’s prison system, parliament passed a narcotics bill that emphasised prevention and treatment over punishment for small-scale drug users.
According to early indications, it was working. The authors of last year’s FIDH report applauded the “progressive decrease of the total prison population” in Thailand, attributing the decline in large part to the “long overdue amendments to drug-related legislation” which “emphasised prevention and treatment rather than punishment for possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use.”
Drug reform advocates say the new proposal could roll back decades of progress. Many are worried that this broader definition of drug crime will fill the country’s prisons to breaking point. They also point out that bundling all drug users and dealers into a single category could actually create new opportunities for criminal actors to enlist fresh recruits, effectively boosting drug distribution.
“If I am a big dealer inside the prison, and you are a small user, or a small dealer, you will get a chance to network with larger dealers,” Supot said. “Often drug dealers will prey on users in prison and recruit them to work for them and distribute more when they get out. So everything is going to get worse.”
“If this proposal is approved, the problem of overcrowding will skyrocket.”
The Thai government’s hardline stance on drugs has intensified in recent months after a former policeman, who was discharged from duty for drug use, went on a knife and gun rampage at a nursery in the nation’s northeast. He killed 37 people, including 24 children, in the deadliest massacre committed by an individual in Thailand’s recorded history. Although authorities were quick to blame drugs for the incident, a blood test found no trace of meth in the killer’s system.
In the weeks following, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha made narcotics suppression an urgent national agenda item, ordering police to proactively crack down on illicit substances to restore public confidence.
Anutin, however, was even quicker to attribute the massacre to drug misuse. “What can I do?” he asked reporters the morning after the incident. “He [the killer] was a drug addict.”
The health minister is also somewhat selective in his “tough on drugs” approach, though. He spearheaded legislation to decriminalise the sale and use of cannabis in Thailand in 2022, making it the first country in Asia to do so, and has loudly and repeatedly endorsed it for medical use.
That legislation has attracted its own share of criticism, with politicians and some medical professionals claiming it has fuelled a rise in the recreational misuse of cannabis by minors. Advocates are worried that Anutin’s new proposed regulations, however, could have even more devastating consequences for drug users.
“As past decades have shown, imposing harsh penalties will not reduce the use and supply of drugs,” Lai said. “But it will ruin the lives of many.”
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