Time we shook off meth's criminal stigma

Time we shook off meth's criminal stigma

Last year, more than a billion <i>ya ba</i> tablets were seized. Authorities burn seized drugs each year after they are no longer needed as evidence in court cases. (File photo by Chanat Katanyu)
Last year, more than a billion ya ba tablets were seized. Authorities burn seized drugs each year after they are no longer needed as evidence in court cases. (File photo by Chanat Katanyu)

The Justice Ministry's proposal to remove methamphetamines, or <i>ya ba</i>, 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.

This is a compilation of articles previously published on the Isra news Agency.

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 maa (horse medicine), 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.

This is a compilation of articles previously published by the Isra News Agency.

Surasak Glahan

Deputy Op-ed Editor

Surasak Glahan is deputy op-ed editor of the Bangkok Post.

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