Time for drug policy rethink

Time for drug policy rethink

The deaths of nine people last week from the overdose of a deadly "new" drug -- a combination of heroin, ketamine, methamphetamine and sleep medication -- is a shock.

The bizarre deaths, so many in one day, were unprecedented. Six were under the jurisdiction of Phraya Krai police station, and the rest reported by the Sai Mai and Suthisan police stations.

The term "k-nom pong" -- "powdered milk ketamine" -- baffles the public. The authorities are also looking into another ketamine concoction called "Talaysai", which is much stronger than the milk powder formula.

Readers may notice news of narcotics crackdowns appearing almost daily in the newspaper, but efforts to root out the problem go nowhere. Rarely do the police or the Office of Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) net the "big fish" of drug dealing operations, as the catch are mostly low-level drug dealers and users, mostly young people.

Some Thais may recall the "war on drugs", an initiative by then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2003, in which over 2,500 people were killed, mostly small dealers, as police responded to pressure to get results. Public outrage caused the Thaksin government to step back.

The latest incident speaks volumes about Thailand's drug problem, which is a mess. Police are still looking for a clue as to who the producers are. Without a major catch, the situation looks like a losing battle.

The authorities' ineptitude should be a cause of grave concern, given reports that Thailand has become a "ketamine transit hub". According to media reports, criminal gangs in Taiwan, China and Thailand have colluded to smuggle ketamine into the kingdom for re-export to lucrative markets in Malaysia and Hong Kong.

Some of the re-exported drugs were also sold to customers back in Taiwan. Locally, the abuse of ketamine is spreading in provinces with a large number of nightspots.

In fact, ketamine has hit the headlines a few times in a way that discredits the authorities.

In November, Justice Minister Somsak Thepsutin and ONCB secretary-general Wichai Chaimongkol announced what was thought to be Thailand's largest ketamine bust worth 30 billion baht from a Chachoengsao warehouse.

In fact, 12 tonnes of the confiscated substances turned out to be trisodium phosphate, a chemical used as a food additive and cleaning agent, and calcium carbonate. Only 1.2 grammes of ketamine residue was found.

The minister blamed the preliminary test results of the seized substance on test kits for confusing the drug suppression officials handling the substance. He said the liquid in the test kits made the substance turn into a purplish colour. The substance was assumed to be ketamine at the time of the warehouse raid which took place on Nov 12.

Lab tests that confirmed the substances involved were later carried out by forensics experts from the Department of Medical Sciences, the Narcotics Suppression Bureau and ONCB.

The saga, which has damaged the Justice Ministry's and the ONCB's credibility, sparked widespread scepticism. Atchariya Ruangrattanapong, chairman of the Crime Victims Assistance Club, filed a complaint with the police's Anti-Corruption Division (ACD) against Mr Somsak and Mr Wichai, for allegedly giving false information to the public about the seizure.

Undeniably, crackdowns remain necessary but they are not enough as they alone cannot secure a proper win in the fight against drugs.

What the kingdom needs is effective drug policy reform.

It was then justice minister Gen Paiboon Koomchaya who proposed sensible drug reforms back in 2016. His proposal featured a new approach to illicit drugs, as the regime promised radical reform of the anti-narcotics laws and the war on drugs.

The minister called for decriminalising many drugs, including methamphetamine, which is by far the most abused drug in the country. But it also has filled the nation's prisons with petty drug dealers and users.

His radical plan was deemed too controversial at the time and it was left on the shelf, which is unfortunate.

But the truth is the nation's prisons are bulging with up to 400,000 (official figures vary significantly) inmates, over 70% (87% for women) of whom are incarcerated for involvement not just with drugs, but with one type of drug -- methamphetamine.

The rampant use of methamphetamine shows no sign of being tamed by an approach as arcane as it is archaic.

It's time to rethink drug reforms, with thorough and inclusive discussions.

Sticking by the wrong approach will not secure success for this difficult issue. Drugs can kill. And so can bad policies.


Bangkok Post editorial column

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

Email : ploenpotea@bangkokpost.co.th

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