Activists call for a review of drug laws
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Activists call for a review of drug laws

Harm reduction is 'more than rehab'

Advocates for harm reduction principles have expressed their concerns about Thailand's Narcotics Code, saying it will be challenging to enforce a law against drugs which promotes decriminalisation and harm reduction at the same time.

Speaking on the sidelines of a forum organised by the International Drugs Policy Consortium in Cebu, the Philippines titled "Building Media and Legal Allies for Drug Law Reform in Southeast Asia", they urged law enforcement agencies to respect internationally recognised human rights principles in their implementation of harm reduction policies.

The activists were referring to sections 113 and 114 of the Narcotics Code in particular, which mandate any person who is arrested for drug use to attend treatment in a rehabilitation facility until they are certified as having completed treatment, at which point the offence will be expunged from their record.

Rawitsara Piakhuntod, Human Rights Officer for the Institute of HIV Research and Innovation (IHRI), said the law effectively forces drug addicts to undergo rehabilitation in exchange for having drug charges against them cleared.

The law, she said, overlooks the fact that not all drug addicts are willing to be rehabilitated, especially those who are considered "functioning addicts" who lead seemingly normal lives.

As such, she said, the code actually goes against the principles of harm reduction, as it makes their liberty and human agency contingent upon enrolling in a rehabilitation programme.

"The law considers anyone convicted of a drug offence as an addict in need of rehabilitation, but in fact it is not like that,'' Ms Rawitsara told the Bangkok Post.

"First of all, it needs to be understood that people who use drugs are not all drug addicts. People use drugs in different ways and amounts, for instance, to unwind or enhance their working capacity so they can earn more money. Most know their limits in using drugs," she said.

"So, it is unfair for them to be forced to enter a rehab programme, when they only use drugs once in a while," she said.

Rawitsara Piakhuntod, Institute of HIV Research and Innovation

Besides sections 113 and 114 of the code, Ms Rawitsara said she was also concerned about Section 115.

Section 115 says police and narcotics officers can insist on a urine analysis test when they suspect someone has taken drugs.

The section also allows them to hold a suspect for 24 hours for questioning, and if the testimony is considered incriminating, it can result in immediate prosecution.

The problem, Ms Rawitsara said, is that a search can be ordered at the discretion of law enforcement officials.

She said this might open a window of opportunity for the police and anti-narcotics authorities to abuse their power as they aren't required to seek court approval or a warrant for a search.

"When it comes to searching entertainment venues, police and drug officials may use suspicion as a reason to take photos of ID cards or personal documents of a suspect, which is an abuse of their human rights and personal liberty," she said.

Harm reduction

According to the principles of harm reduction, she said that once people who use drugs are arrested by law enforcers, they must retain the right to manage their lives and their addictions through choice and not coercion.

And if they are drug dependent, they must be treated as patients, Ms Rawitsara said.

The primary goal of harm reduction is to save lives and protect the health of both people who use drugs and their communities, she said.

She said the authorities must not generalise and assume all those who use drugs are addicts.

Law enforcement officials need to refer cases to health officers to confirm an addiction with a thorough test after someone is found with drugs in their possession.

If they require treatment, they should have a role in deciding which treatment is the most suitable for their condition.

Some may just need counselling to understand the root causes of their drug abuse to move on with their lives.

"Harm reduction does not mean criminal punishment. The death penalty, imprisonment, custody, fines and confiscation are approaches which are only suitable for those who traffic drugs," Ms Rawitsara said.

Thissadee Sawangying, director of Health and Opportunity Network (HON), said while law enforcement agencies have worked with the Public Health Ministry to better understand the principles of harm reduction, they continue to insist on rehabilitation in lieu of criminal prosecution.

She said that the Office of Narcotics Control Board's harm reduction programme should be there to reduce harm in society, not harm the people it is supposed to serve.

Measures such as mandatory urine testing, or the prosecution of recreational users can backfire.

"The law is there to promote peace and security, yet authorities still arrest drug users and force them to undergo a rehabilitation programme under the guise of 'harm reduction', but that is a misinterpretation.

"The principles are meant to reduce harm threatening peace and security, not the people themselves. How can we achieve peace and security in society if the people themselves are not at peace?" she said.

The principles of harm reduction must also be applied to former inmates, Ms Thissadee said.

She said there are no post-release physical or mental checkups, no economic assistance or support of any kind provided for ex-inmates.

"Harm reduction is about serving all the needs of the individual -- not just their health needs, but also psychological, economic and social needs," she said.

Thissadee: 'Law is misinterpreted.'

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