For drug offenders, prison is no solution
Thailand is ranked sixth in prison population, with more than 330,000 prisoners. In Asean, following closely is Indonesia ranked 10th, Vietnam 12th, and the Philippines 14th.
Research by the Thailand Institute of Justice (TIJ) which was recently discussed at the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna also reveals a number of Asean countries face serious overcrowding in prisons with the Philippines at 3.26 and Thailand at 1.57 times their occupancy rates.
It also shows that drug-related offenders constitute large proportions of prison populations. Thailand, again, leads the Asean region with 70% of males and 80% of females detained in prison due to drug-related offences. The high proportion of drug-related offenders should not come as a surprise. In Thailand, drug use has shown no decline with an estimated 1.2 million users, or 1.79% of the population.
Field research by TIJ shows that Indonesia has an estimated 4.2 million drug users and Laos about 76,000 such users. Laos is one of the least populated countries in the region, but drug use is becoming a major worry.
Of particular concern is the rise in amphetamine-type stimulant (ATS) use in urban and border areas with an estimate of 60,000 users while opium consumption is declining and numbers about 16,000 users.
Most countries in Asean have a legal framework allowing alternatives to incarceration for drug-involved offenders by acknowledging them as patients instead of criminals. They use treatment mandates as a diversion from imprisonment. But the system still fails to provide flexible alternatives to address different types of drug-related offenders.
In addition, in terms of drug possession, the low legal threshold quantities - for example in Thailand it is five ATS tablets and Laos it is three tablets - has resulted in court and prison overcrowding when suspects could have been diverted towards other solutions to avoid burdening the criminal justice system and state resources.
Thailand has tried to address the drug issue through the Narcotic Addict Rehabilitation Act of 2002 by diverting drug addicts from entering the criminal justice system to seek compulsory rehabilitation. The law provided a legal basis for the introduction of a new paradigm where drug users are no longer regarded as criminals but as patients who require treatment.
Since 2003 the law has been successful in diverting 910,452 people from prison. Unfortunately, the number of addicts sent to this programme has continued to rise from just under 20,000 in 2003 to almost 150,000 by 2014. According to the Department of Probation, relapse rates are 70% for those who enter compulsory treatment.
As drug addiction rates increase, the system has also been unable to provide adequate treatment with a capacity of 20,000 beds for in-patients, compared to demand for 50,000.
Within the different categories of drug offences, arrests for consumption have also leaped from 51,566 in 2003 to 209,366 by 2013, accounting for 92% of all of drug-related offences.
In the Asean region there are also complications in the effective assessment of drug offenders with only the distinctions being drug addict, trafficker and producer.
Drug addicts are diverted to rehabilitation while traffickers and producers are sentenced through the criminal justice system.
Often the arresting officer determines the distinction by the amount of drugs the suspect possesses - how many tablets of ATS or grammes of heroin the suspect is carrying.
In Thailand, the arresting officer's discretion often leads to the use of the law to arrest and detain drug users and low-level drug offenders instead of using it as a tool to aid in the diversion of drug offenders away from the criminal justice system as intended.
Drug use also continues to be associated with criminal activity which needs to be solved through law and order. Not only does the law criminalise drug use but society also criminalises users.
This limits the chances for drug users to reintegrate into society as productive individuals without the burden of social stigma.
As a direct result of punitive drug control policies, the region continues to face growing prison populations and severe prison overcrowding with no decline in drug addiction.
For successful recovery from drug addiction it is necessary to change the one size fits all approach by improving assessments that can identify addicts' needs and address the root causes of the addiction.
There also needs to be an increase of non-compulsory treatment through community interventions and treatment facilities to reduce the over-reliance on compulsory treatment.
At the same time, there is also a need for arresting officers to use diversion laws appropriately and effectively. Last but not least, it is crucial that the negative public attitude toward drug users be tackled to allow users' productive reintegration into society.
The effectiveness of the treatment of offenders is a key indicator of a functioning criminal justice system. And a fair and humane criminal justice system is closely related to how the system adheres to the rule of law and its treatment of vulnerable groups.
It is more pertinent than ever for the public and policy-makers in the region to review our "war on drugs" and take action to reduce drug addiction, relapse rates, unnecessary incarceration and the burden which large imprisoned populations pose on individuals, society and the state.
Kittipong Kittayarak is executive director of the Thailand Institute of Justice (TIJ). He is formerly permanent secretary of the Ministry of Justice.