Drugs policy enables police abuse

Drugs policy enables police abuse

The footage that went viral early last month showing local policemen at Muang Nakhon Sawan police station torturing Jirapong Thanaphiphat to death by covering his head with multiple layers of plastic bags was deeply shocking.

Not that police abuse is unheard of in the country, but perhaps because such atrocities are consistently denied and covered up. However, in this case there was nowhere to hide as the video was shared widely on social media and through news reports.

The viral nature of the post removed all possibility of denying that police are capable of acting outside their authority to not only commit extreme violence and murder, but also cover it up afterwards.

Jirapong was being held for a suspected drug offence and when he died, police instructed the hospital to report his cause of death as a drug overdose. However, the autopsy report released by the hospital verified that the cause of death was suffocation.

It is highly likely that the police assumed their attempted cover-up would work because the stigma related to drugs is so deeply entrenched in society that the deaths of people associated with the narcotics trade often go unquestioned. It brings to mind the death of Chaiyaphum Pasae, who after being arrested for an alleged drug offence was shot by military officers in a notorious incident in Chiang Mai province in 2017.

The army claimed there was video footage of the incident that proved their officers had acted in self-defence, but the footage subsequently went missing without explanation. If we look further back to 2003, then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra launched a "war on drugs" resulting in the extrajudicial killing of over 2,000 people suspected of drug offences by enforcement officers in just a three-month period -- there has not been a single prosecution for any of those deaths.

Brutality and lethal violence by the state are too often justified by the ideology that drugs are evil and must be eradicated. Visions of a "drug-free" Thailand have led to massive public investment in the criminalisation and punishment of all drug-related activities.

Over 80% of people imprisoned in Thailand are convicted of drug offences. This has contributed to Thailand boasting the largest prison population in Asean and the world's highest proportion of people in prison for drug offences, as well as the second highest rate of women incarcerated globally.

While diverting drugs users into rehabilitation programmes was intended as a shift towards a more modern approach, many of those programmes are detention centres run by the military or police. The abusive nature of such programmes has been well-documented and persists despite repeated calls from international authorities such as the World Health Organization to close them down.

Thailand has taken some steps towards a rational and scientific approach to drugs, such as instituting the legal regulation of medical cannabis and kratom but there is still much to be done to ensure that abuse, torture and killing by police and military officers are no longer justified by a zero-tolerance stance on drugs.

United Nations entities, including the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, recently recommended the decriminalisation of minor drug offences, which could narrow the scope officers to abuse their power.

Parliament, too, recently passed a drug law reform bill aimed at reducing the prison population; however, the details remain unclear. What is clear is that significant and urgent reforms are needed -- to the police and military institutions and drug policies -- to bring an end to state-sponsored brutality and impunity, whether it is recorded on video or not.

Ann Fordham is the Executive Director of the International Drug Policy Consortium, a global network of over 190 civil society organisations advocating for drug policies grounded in principles of human rights, harm reduction, and development. Somchai Homlaor is President of the Cross Cultural Foundation which promotes human rights in Thailand. He has been working as a human rights lawyer for the past 25 years, and previously a Commissioner for the Law Reform Commission of Thailand.

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