Pursuing a lost war

Pursuing a lost war

Police commandos of the Office of Narcotics Control Board guard the stash of drugs in 2014 for the annual
Police commandos of the Office of Narcotics Control Board guard the stash of drugs in 2014 for the annual "Destruction of Confiscated Narcotics" in Ayutthaya. There will be another such bonfire Monday, also in Ayutthaya. (Reuters photo)

Monday's annual event in Ayutthaya marks a great setback in a campaign to bring sanity to the 46-year-old "global war on drugs" instigated by ex-US president Richard Nixon. Officials will stage their usual torching of tonnes of drugs seized in raids, highway searches, street-corner arrests and home invasions. But for the first time in years they will be working under orders to step up the suppression. The prime minister "expects to see better results", meaning more arrests in the so-called war that that was lost years ago.

Last week's order by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is disappointing on several levels. The order to increase police action is a complete reversal of encouraging movement towards adoption of a more sane and sustainable policy on illicit drugs. As in the past, the ceremony in Ayutthaya will literally blow smoke over the very idea of reforming the failed policies of the past.

The annual drug-burning is at the behest of the United Nations. It celebrates the UN's International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. That too is a relic, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1987. Thirty years ago, there was still a general and popular optimism that the right police action would work. The mantra was that if law enforcement could just seize enough drugs in transit, drug trafficking would cease to be a profitable enterprise. If enough minor drug dealers and even drug abusers were imprisoned, the traffickers would have no more buyers.

There are few people left who believe that any more. But in country after country, the message every year has been the same. If the battles in the war on drugs have failed to end drug use and international trafficking, double down. In 2003, the Thai government of Thaksin Shinawatra increased its police efforts into a murderous campaign that killed 2,500 people, including some street-corner drug sellers and bystanders. That campaign's failure was replicated last year in the Philippines where 7,000 petty dealers, abusers and innocent people were killed.

It has been just over a year now since ex-minister of justice Paiboon Koomchaya raised expectations with a new approach to illicit drugs. His plan, which he took to the cabinet, called for decriminalising many drugs. Controversially, he included methamphetamines, by far the most abused drug in the country. But it also has literally filled the nation's prisons with petty drug dealers and users. A few local "big fish" fill out the prison list. The regime and past governments haven't caught an international drug trafficker for a very long time.

In addition to government anti-drug messages, there will be alternative voices raised in about 200 cities in 90 countries. A campaign called "Support, Don't Punish" will call for radical drug reform in nations on every continent. No such action is scheduled anywhere in Thailand. Instead, the prime minister's message will be spread widely. That is: "During the remaining term of this government, I expect to see even better results in terms of drug prevention and suppression."

His regime is running out of places to store seized drugs. Yet the many ya ba seizures have made no dent in drug trafficking. The government is to build a new warehouse to store seized drugs. But the 6,546 drug cases which yielded the 9.1 tonnes of illegal drugs to be burnt Monday leave Gen Prayut commanding a war already lost. His efforts and exhortations would be better aimed at 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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