Meth in the madness

Meth in the madness

The push to decriminalise 'ya ba' is being hailed as a necessary reform as the war on drugs has left prisons crowded with small-time users

Thirteen years ago Saksiri Vanichanon was one of tens of thousands of addicts caught up in Thaksin Shinawatra's "war on drugs".

Broad approach: Justice Minister Paiboon Koomchaya, centre, inspects Ratchaburi's Kao Bin jail. (Photo by Tawatchai Kemgumnerd)

Then aged in his mid-twenties, he had first tried heroin when he was 15. He turned to ya ba in 1996 after the government shifted methamphetamine on its drug schedule from Category 2 -- which allows medical use -- to Category 1, which carries the most severe penalties, including the death sentence.

Thaksin's crackdown on the drug trade had led to stricter police surveillance and the price of ya ba shot up from 30 baht a pill to more than 200 baht.

Mr Saksiri, now aged 39, said he had to steal money from family and friends to buy ya ba. The Thaksin government's extreme measures made him afraid, but he needed to feed his habit.

"Fear and needs are different matters," he recalled, saying the threat of imprisonment never stopped him from seeking out dealers.

He was arrested more than 10 times for possessing small amounts of illegal drugs, but always managed to escape conviction by bribing police.

While in custody for those brief periods, Mr Saksiri said he learned useful information from other drug suspects in the holding cells about where to score ya ba in Bangkok. Other drug users he knew who did time came out of jail with better drug-dealing skills and connections. Some said they were even schooled in petty crimes such as breaking into cars and houses.

"When the government declared a war on drugs, I thought it was like pushing a family to declare war with each other. This forced drug users to the margins, so they turned to other drug users who seemed to understand them."

Mr Saksiri went through a long battle to kick his habit, undergoing treatment in private and public programmes. It wasn't easy; at one stage his family called police to arrest him at home. But he eventually managed to quit on his own.

When he heard of the Justice Ministry's plan to decriminalise ya ba for personal and medical use to address the widespread methamphetamine problem, he could only agree.

"Long years of criminalising ya ba users have made them stigmatised. They are victims," he said. "I don't agree with sending all arrested drug users to prison. It focuses on punishment rather than providing proper treatment that can wean them off drugs."


By the Justice Ministry's own metrics the "tough on drugs" policies of successive governments have been a failure.

Last year, of the prison population of 325,361 inmates, 230,074 (70.71%) were imprisoned on drug-related offences, the majority for methamphetamines in the form of ya ba.

The Corrections Department also swallowed up 52%, or just over 12 billion baht, of the Justice Ministry's entire 2015 budget.

It's little wonder that after the UN General Assembly's special session on the worldwide drug problem in April, the Justice Ministry announced it would review its approach to narcotics.

Justice Minister Paiboon Koomchaya said the government planned to take into account the "public health dimension" in its effort to curb the widespread use of ya ba, rather than focusing purely on legal aspects. The Justice Ministry has set up three working committees: one to review laws to control meth, one to study guidelines and directions to help drug addicts, and the third to provide information and monitor progress. The classification of other drugs, such as marijuana and kratom, is also under review.

Under the 1979 Narcotics Act, heroin, amphetamine, methamphetamine, ecstasy and LSD are classified as Category 1, which carry the harshest penalties. Cocaine, codeine, methadone and morphine are Category 2 and cannabis, magic mushrooms and kratom, Category 5.

The penalties for producing, importing or exporting Category 1 drugs include fines of up to five million baht, a life sentence in prison and the death penalty.

Possession of Category 1 drugs carries stiff penalties including 10 years' jail and fines of up to 200,000 baht. However, a possession charge can quickly escalate into something much greater as the law also states that if the quantity "exceeds prescribed levels in the act" then "possession for the purpose of disposal will be inferred".

In the case of meth pills, it is set at 15 units. The penalties for disposal, or dealing, also include a maximum fine of five million baht, a life sentence and the death penalty.

In terms of law enforcement, police have the right to search any premises or vehicle without a warrant if they have "reasonable grounds" for suspicion of a drug offence. They also have the right to order "on the spot" drug tests if they have reasonable grounds.

Atikhom Inthuphut, secretary-general of the Courts of Justice, described the massive number of ya ba inmates as a tragedy.

"It is tragic that many people are suffering in jail, even though some have committed only minor offences," he said.

"The tragedy began in 1996 when ya ba was elevated to a Category 1 substance, resulting in harsh punishment for use, possession, production and distribution, and also subject to a death sentence. It amounts to intentionally killing a person.

"The people in power at that time reasoned that they wanted to scare people. But the result was the number of ya ba cases rose sharply within a short period of time."


A recent survey of the prison system by Thammasat University's Faculty of Social Administration bears out the argument that small players are being caught in the anti-drug campaign.

combating stigma: Kittipong Kittayarak.

Of 10,000 inmates jailed for drug offences surveyed, 7,000 were imprisoned for possessing less than 23 pills, 748 for less than five pills and 116 for two pills.

"Only drug users with small amounts are caught," said Verapun Ngammee, secretariat of the Ozone Foundation, Thailand's largest NGO focusing on improving the lives of drug users.

"Instead of putting everyone in jail, the legal system should distinguish between different drug users and find the right solutions."

Mr Verapun said Thailand used criminal charges to try and solve the drug problem, even though many users were only caught with small amounts.

"If criminal charges could solve the drug problem, the number of inmates should have declined," he said. "But it hasn't."

The Office of Narcotics Control Board's 2014 annual report said only 7.5% of all drug cases are "big". It defined such cases as those involving more than 200 ya ba pills or 20g of heroin.

In 2011, the Thailand Development Research Institute released a study on 400 legal cases pointing out that average cost of processing each -- from arrest to the courts -- was just under 80,000 baht.

The financial rewards offered to police for making a successful drug arrests have also been criticised by civic groups for incentivising police to arrest small-time users.

The ONCB recorded one case last year where a Bangkok police officer was "rewarded" with 2,270 baht for arresting a person possessing 1.073g of methamphetamine.

Another officer received 7,200 baht after making a drug arrest and helping in 36 cases with "very few" ya ba pills seized.


Mr Verapun said decriminalising ya ba would allow the state to control the quality and use of amphetamines, which have a role to play in medical treatments.

"This doesn't mean the free use of ya ba as many have interpreted," he said.

"It's a measure to control the drug according to the medical evidence. Leaving the state in control of the drug would be better than giving this job to a gangster."

Apinun Aramrattana, director of the Northern Substance Abuse Centre at Chiang Mai University, agrees with the plan to reclassify amphetamine and methamphetamine from Category 1 to Category 2, which allows some medical use.

"The present law is too harsh. It sends everyone involved with ya ba to jail, even though the users should be sent to rehabilitation," he told Spectrum.

He said the 1996 reclassification of the drug effectively meant both users and dealers are subject to imprisonment.

"In fact, amphetamine has less addictive qualities than alcohol and cigarettes, which are harder for users to quit," Dr Apinun said. "Why do governments let people drink and smoke, even though alcohol and cigarettes don't have any medical benefits?"

He said the drugs should be reclassified for medical purposes and treated the same way as morphine, which is used as a painkiller even though it is addictive.

The reclassification will reduce jail time and enable users to undergo rehabilitation with gradually reduced amphetamine dosages. "The healing process also requires amphetamine. But the law bans its use for all purposes," said Dr Apinun.

Methamphetamine, known locally as ya ice and overseas as meth, crystal and chalk, is an extremely addictive stimulant chemically similar to amphetamine. It usually takes the form of a white, odourless, bitter-tasting crystalline powder and is smoked.

Ya ba usually contains about 30% methamphetamine, with the other major ingredient caffeine, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Dr Apinun said amphetamines can be used to cure attention deficit disorder and sleeping sickness.

Ya ba was once called ya ma, or "horse drug", because some owners used it to boost an animal's energy while racing or working. Before its reclassification 20 years ago, truck drivers and night workers commonly used it to keep awake during their long hours.

"It was used under medical control until it was banned in 1996," said Dr Apinun, who conceded it was coming under greater abuse when it was reclassified.

Now with it outlawed, amphetamine and methamphetamine cannot be given under medical supervision to treat ya ba addicts.

"Decision-makers should use multiple perspectives," he said. "They should not think there is only one solution.

"Reclassification of ya ba alone does not end the abuse. But there must also be a policy to control the use to prevent more addicts, such as encouraging users to undergo rehabilitation."


"Amphetamine can help drug addicts to quit using methamphetamine," said Poonchai Chitanuntavitaya, the founder of Social Health Enterprise which focuses on skills training for former female inmates.

In Thailand, around 40,000 prisoners are female and 80% of them were arrested on drug-related cases.

To treat methamphetamine addiction, doctors prescribe amphetamine to patients then gradually reduce the dosage until they have recovered.

Treatment can take around three months, said Dr Poonchai, followed by acquiring new social and life skills to prepare patients for a drug-free future.

But the reality of rehabilitation programmes in Thailand is far harsher.

Drug users are often taken to army-style boot camps run by the military or monks where access to illicit drugs is cut off.

Dr Poonchai said they usually experience excessive cravings in the first few days after arrival. After 15-20 days, they may be eligible for release, but often they return to their old habits.

In jail, some drug users may receive occupational training such as making bags and artificial flowers. However, these skills may not earn them a living when they return to society. As the ya ba price is high, 200-300 baht a pill, users often become dealers so they can earn enough money to buy drugs for themselves.

"Without cutting the cycle of demand and supply, damage will be inflicted on others' lives," said Dr Poonchai.

"Putting them in prison is a losing proposition. If we can offer them other opportunities that allow them to live with dignity, and if they can be treated properly, they will recover and break the cycle."

He believes the government's attempt to reclassify ya ba will have a positive result.


The Thailand Institute of Justice is a research agency which is part of the UNODC network. The institute made the recommendation to the Justice Ministry on the policy review for amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS), consisting of amphetamine and methamphetamine.

Its executive director, Kittipong Kittayarak, said they looked at the successful model in Portugal which has seen dramatic falls in drug crimes and incarceration rates.

In 2001, Portugal decriminalised the possession and use of illegal drugs, and instead focused on treatment and prevention.

"When the policy was first announced, people were critical that it would make Portugal a drug paradise," said Mr Kittipong. "But 15 years have passed and Portugal now has the lowest drug-use rate of any Western European country."

From 2001-2011, the number of drug addicts in rehabilitation centres rose by 400% and UNODC recognised Portugal's approach as "good practice".

"The severity of ATS is exaggerated by the current law," Mr Kittipong said. "It is treated on the same level as heroin. The prisons are now full of users and small-time dealers. The suppression effort should rather focus on big-time dealers, not everyone who uses drugs."

He said the agencies involved need to rethink their strategy to control the methamphetamine problem. "Focusing on police suppression does not help fix the problem at the root cause."

In 2001, Mr Kittipong became director-general of the Probation Department and witnessed the number of inmates multiplying by two to three times in a couple of years. The rise coincided with the crackdown on opium production and the availability of chemicals to make methamphetamine, which is easy to cook up in a lab.

"I knew that putting users in prison would not help fix the problem," he said.

He said if amphetamine-type stimulants are reclassified to Category 2, users and small-time dealers will receive more opportunities to defend themselves and rehabilitate.

"We need a combination of factors," he said. "First, the reclassification will encourage the users to go to rehabilitation voluntarily by using a public health approach. Some 30-40% said they did not go to rehabilitation because they felt it would leave a stigma on them and their family. The rest said they were afraid of the police."

A majority of Thais think that the current drug law should be changed. A nationwide TIJ survey -- conducted by Super Poll last month -- found 95.1% of respondents believed the government should reform its drug policy.

It also showed that 61.6% of respondents said imprisonment was not a good solution. A majority of 69.3% said rehabilitation is the best way to fix the problem.

The survey showed 62.4% believed inmates convicted on drug charges did not change their behaviour after release, with 9.4% believing their behaviour was worse.

A majority (74.4%) held the view that drug users should be treated as patients, not criminals, while 56.7% agreed doctors should take the lead role in helping addicts.

"In my opinion, if we took the police out of the picture and looked at the issue through the eyes of governance and public health, people would look at users differently," Mr Kittipong said. "And it will encourage users to come out and seek help, instead of putting them away in prison."

'It is tragic': Courts of Justice secretary-general Atikhom Inthuphut. PHOTO: Kitti Voracharnchai

Controlled crowd: More than 70% of prison inmates are serving sentences for drug offences. PHOTO: REUTERS

Bitter pills: While the police champion big busts, most charges are against small-time users.

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