Focusing on the bright side

Focusing on the bright side

ONCB chief admits more drug education needed after making his own blunder at a recent 'ketamine' bust

Secretary-general of the Office of the Narcotics Control Board Vichai Chaimongkol is gearing up to fight the drug menace. ONCB
Secretary-general of the Office of the Narcotics Control Board Vichai Chaimongkol is gearing up to fight the drug menace. ONCB

Vichai Chaimongkol had only been promoted as the Office of the Narcotics Control Board's secretary-general for three months when he held a news conference to announce what was thought to be Thailand's largest ketamine bust, only to find out later that the haul was mostly trisodium phosphate.

In an interview with the Bangkok Post, Mr Vichai said he chose to focus on the bright side, adding the mistake taught him a lesson -- ketamine isn't the only substance that turns drug test kits purple.

Mr Vicha was referring to the gaffe in late November. After a raid yielded 475 25-kilogramme sacks of a suspicious substance, the ONCB said initial tests carried out at the warehouse where the sacks were stored turned their test kits purple, which suggested the substance was ketamine. However, after testing 66 sacks further at a laboratory, the substance was determined to be trisodium phosphate.

The ONCB secretary-general's journey to the top job began when he became the chief of ONCB's intelligence and drugs suppression team in Chiang Rai. Before he became the bureau's secretary-general, he worked as an adviser to the ONCB -- a post which ONCB officials usually take up before assuming the position of bureau leader.

But before that, Mr Vichai graduated from Chiang Mai University's Faculty of Science. He went on to pursue a law degree at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, before completing his postgraduate studies at Ramkhamhaeng University. While he was the ONCB's deputy secretary-general, he studied at the National Defence College of Thailand.

"I started from suppression work. When I became [ONCB] secretary-general, I paid a lot of attention to suppression efforts, though I didn't neglect other work, as all work is important to me," he said.

"I've continued foreign collaborations, such as the Safe Mekong River project, in which we collaborate with six other countries in the Mekong region. We periodically exchange information via video conference."

Another project that is ongoing, he added, is the Asean Airport Interdiction Task Force (AAITF), in which the ONCB collaborates with the police, military and other security units in the region to stem drug smuggling.

The AAITF continues to make drug-related arrests at airports, even during the Covid-19 pandemic, he said.

As drug traffickers are shifting their smuggling routes from the North to the Northeast, Mr Vichai said officers have been ordered to conduct searches more vigorously along known new smuggling routes.

"After Covid-19 hit, less drugs were moved through the North, while more were coming in through the Northeast from Laos, where the outbreak isn't as serious," the ONCB chief said.

Shipments of heroin and methamphetamine are usually destined for Thailand, while ketamine and crystal meth, or "ice", shipments are usually just passing through, bound for another country by boat -- for example, to Malaysia or Taiwan and onwards to Japan or other countries in Europe.

Mr Vichai said under his leadership, the ONCB has managed to intercept large hauls of ketamine and ice, with arrests made as far as Japan.

The increasing number of ketamine- and ice-related arrests is due in part to the increasingly sophisticated "insurance" system used by drug traffickers to ensure delivery.

This means when a haul is intercepted by authorities, an equal amount will be shipped from a different location, he said.

"In the past, we didn't know where the ketamine was produced. We were told that it would be shipped from India in liquid form.

"These days, we know that chemists from Taiwan are able to produce ketamine in the Golden Triangle, so we need to be much more cautious," he said.

Aside from suppression, the ONCB secretary-general said he is also focusing on raising public awareness of drugs.

He said the ONCB has launched a project to educate people about drugs, from students at kindergartens and higher education institutions to conscripts of the 2nd and 3rd Army Regions.

Mr Vichai said there is a need to design a curriculum to educate learners at all stages about the danger of narcotics. Suppression work alone won't solve the problem, as it doesn't tackle the root cause of drug crimes, he added.

He also talked about the comprehensive learning centre at the Golden Triangle Park Hall in Chiang Rai's Opium Museum, which is a collaboration between the ONCB and the Mae Fah Luang Foundation.

There, visitors can learn about the drug problem in the Golden Triangle, its history and how it connects countries in the Mekong region, he said.

The learning centre was designed with children in mind, and its operations are supervised by an international training institution, he said.

"People need to learn about drugs since they are young, so that they will be 'immunised' against them," he said.

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