Drug reform push stalls
The Global Commission on Drug Policy was in Thailand last week to show support for reform of the country's "war on drugs" laws. Privy Councillor Paiboon Koomchaya welcomed GCDP chairwoman, former Swiss president Ruth Dreifuss. If you weren't aware that the commission chose Bangkok as the site to introduce its latest annual report, you aren't alone. Ms Dreifuss and Gen Paiboon both have found it difficult to gain traction in their campaigns to bring outdated and failed drug policies into the 21st century.
Nor does the future look particularly bright. While there has been some progress in modernising drug laws, there is almost no good news in Thailand or the region. Chief campaigner Gen Paiboon has new duties at the Privy Council. The permanent secretary of justice has sent a proposal to the council to re-schedule some drugs, notably methamphetamine. It is highly questionable whether the current government or its National Legislative Assembly will act.
Within the region, the war on drugs of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has taken, literally, thousands of lives. There seems no chance Mr Duterte will stop the bloodshed, let alone support reform and harm reduction.
While the presence of Ms Dreifuss and the Global Commission was welcome, the influence felt was minimal. Even the reasons the GCDP gave for picking Bangkok to introduce its 44-page report seemed somewhat forced. They were the success of the crop substitution programme introduced by King Bhumibol and what Ms Dreifuss called "the current government's shift" in national policy of dealing with illicit drugs.
The introduction of crop substitution by the late King Rama IX was one of the world's most successful anti-drug projects. It wiped out commercial opium farming by giving farmers new crops and markets for a huge variety of alternatives. From coffee to corn and from Idaho potatoes to flowers, the North of Thailand has prospered continuously for 40 years, and also wiped out Thai opium as a heroin source.
That has not affected, noticeably, the drug laws that both the Global Commission and Gen Paiboon see as a problem. The laws still have huge public support. And despite Gen Paiboon's pioneering effort in his last months as minister of justice, little has changed. Efforts by some senior officials to effect drug reform have failed to win any public support from the administration of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
Then things got much worse. At the same time the GCDP lobbied in Bangkok for a more sane approach to illicit drugs, Singapore moved in the opposite direction.
Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam announced "a tough stance and stepped-up efforts" to enforce drug laws that are failing in the Lion City exactly as they are elsewhere. He led a marathon session of parliament to study and then adopt tougher enforcement against drug sellers. So far as rescheduling or legalising drugs, forget it. Mr Shanmugam specifically identified marijuana as a major problem. He promised that from now on, enforcement of anti-drug laws will be a national priority.
The "new" policy in Singapore, where the death penalty is mandatory for drug-law convictions, will try to separate drug dealers from users. "We will differentiate between those who supply and cause harm versus those who are abusers", he said, promising a "science-based approach".
Without at least a show of support from Asean, true reform of drug laws here is almost impossible. But Asean as a group is, at best, split over the issue. Except for Gen Paiboon, political leadership is clearly lacking. While Thailand badly needs drug reform, chances of success seem slim.
Bangkok Post editorial column
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