Updating the war on drugs

Updating the war on drugs

Justice Minister Gen Paiboon Koomchaya has progressive ideas on updating drug enforcement but he must enlist public opinion in his efforts. (File photo by Pornprom Satrabhaya)
Justice Minister Gen Paiboon Koomchaya has progressive ideas on updating drug enforcement but he must enlist public opinion in his efforts. (File photo by Pornprom Satrabhaya)

Governments and security agencies worldwide are always trying to catch up with society. Nothing illustrates this like the global rethink on the four-decade war on drugs. Justice Minister Paiboon Koomchaya continues to look for a policy that somehow acknowledges both a common disgust with the "war", and the fact that the public is becoming better educated and more tolerant of its actual dangers.

After his earlier push to take methamphetamine off the most dangerous illicit narcotics list and put it under a less harmful category, the minister is in his new battle to remove marijuana and krathom from the narcotics list and treat them as medicinal herbs.

Gen Paiboon is on the right track. He is entirely correct that many drug-control laws are far too extreme. They were poorly thought out, and passed in an atmosphere of near-hysteria. It has been proved repeatedly that many of the prohibitions cannot be properly enforced. More than half the convicts in the hugely overcrowded prisons have been jailed for possession of tiny amounts of drugs. It can be argued that the arbitrary drug arrests and convictions for methamphetamines, marijuana and krathom have ruined a vast number of lives.

Recognising the problem is not the same as reaching a solution. Gen Paiboon's well-meant attempt to bring drug laws and enforcement up to date have made little progress. He has failed to come up with a programme that both justifies the major changes he is pursuing and lays this project out for public scrutiny.

It is unlikely he will succeed unless he draws the public into his programme. His first push to remove methamphetamine from the dangerous narcotics list was poorly planned and did not gain widespread support. Years of meth abuse and major trafficking by influential criminal gangs turned the public strongly against methamphetamine or ya ba. It will take persuasion and logic to move drug policy forward.

Last week, the justice minister gave his first public speech on de-listing marijuana and krathom. Again, Gen Paiboon was highly economical with details of how he reached the decision to pursue semi-legalisation of these substances. He will likely meet highly vocal and entrenched conservative forces who are not just opposed to softening the harsh drug laws, but would support making them even harsher.

Again, he has failed to try to bring the general public into the issue. There are enormous numbers of Thais who recognise the problems. Hundreds of families bitterly remember the innocent family members gunned down during the Thaksin Shinawatra administration's war on drugs in 2003 that resulted in the death of 2,500 men, women and even children. Thousands have seen the injustice of the drug and incarceration laws. The corruption from drug trafficking alone is reason enough to call for reform.

Ironically, in the past five months, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has made krathom as illegal as heroin -- and then, by public pressure, forced to reverse completely and keep it in the category of a legal herb. Many Americans consume krathom in liquid or tablet form to treat psychological disorders and ease the pain of withdrawal from heroin. Marijuana is increasingly available in the US, and not just as a medicine.

Societies evolve, and laws and enforcement must catch up. After five decades of the war on drugs, many Thais still hold that strong police action and unsympathetic judges are the answer to the problem. But a growing number believe the war on drugs is unwinnable. They are coming, like Gen Paiboon, to the realisation that modern times and attitudes call for extended public debate, followed by realistic reform.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

Email : ploenpotea@bangkokpost.co.th

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