A pill policy that may just pop

A pill policy that may just pop

SPECIAL REPORT: While limiting possession of meth tablets to five looks progressive on paper, the move could easily backfire

About 3.5 million methamphetamine tablets and 73kg of ice are displayed at the Provincial Police Region 1 headquarters on Feb 4, 2022. (Photo: Apichit Jinakul)
About 3.5 million methamphetamine tablets and 73kg of ice are displayed at the Provincial Police Region 1 headquarters on Feb 4, 2022. (Photo: Apichit Jinakul)

Yosapat Kongduang, 22, did not sleep for three straight nights after taking methamphetamine pills or ya ba. He was restless and aggressive when police arrested him at his house in Buri Ram on Feb 16.

"I was glad that having five ya ba pills is not illegal," he told the police, adding that because of that, he celebrated the government's announcement by taking five pills a day for three days. He was finally handcuffed by the police and sent to a hospital for treatment.

On Feb 19, police in Suphan Buri arrested Panya Pho-on, 40, for having 13 pills in three small packs. When asked why he had to separate them into three packs, he said a small pack of five meth pills would indicate that he was a drug user, not a dealer. However, he admitted that he bought the packs to resell but couldn't resist taking two pills before being arrested.

Drug users join a Buddhist dhamma-based treatment course at a social rehabilitation centre in Udon Thani province on April 1 last year. Around 600 participated in the course. (Photo: Ministry of Interior)

Meanwhile, Saksan, 32, a meth dealer, who was caught with 100 pills, told reporters after being arrested in Saraburi in mid-February that the rule saying a person with no more than five meth pills is a user will not help reduce the number of addicts.

"I cannot stop taking meth. If I had known that I did not have to go to jail, I would buy five meth pills at a time. I don't know who introduced the law, but I want to thank them a lot. It makes me happy," he said.

Spike in drug users

After the Public Health Ministry announced its new ministerial regulation on Feb 9 specifying the number of narcotics and psychotropic substances that are presumed to be for personal use, it raised concerns about tackling the problem of illicit drugs due to fears the new limit would encourage more drug use in society.

The regulation allows people to possess a maximum of five meth pills to be considered a user and not a dealer. If they get caught, they must undergo rehabilitation. Failure to comply will result in prosecution.

However, Public Health Minister Cholnan Srikaew insisted this would not apply in every case. Much would depend on intent and their police record, if applicable. If a person has one pill but is on a dealer list, they can be put in jail instead of rehabilitation, he said.

Cholnan: Tackling illicit drugs

The law is not new, he said, adding the limit at one time was 10 meth pills. If someone has more than 10, they are regarded as a dealer.

"The latest regulation is part of the government's 'Quick Win' policy to solve illicit drug problems within a year by strengthening communities, treating drug users as patients and toughening punishment for drug dealers," he said.

Meth pill use is punishable by up to one year in jail and a maximum fine of 20,000 baht, while possessing one pill carries up to two years in jail and a fine of 40,000 baht. But dealing just one pill carries a maximum term of 10 years in jail and a fine ranging from 20,000 baht to 1.5 million baht.

Thai Pakdee Party leader Warong Dechgitvigrom said the new policy will spur the drug trade and increase the number of drug addicts as it will facilitate both drug dealers and users.

"I think this measure won't be of any use. This sounds like allowing drug offenders to trade freely," he said.

The policy will lead to disorder. The prevalence of abuse will only aggravate current problems, he said.

"This regulation can be exploited by small-time drug dealers. When they are arrested, they will deny being dealers," he said. "This policy will not help solve illicit drug problems."

Warong: Warns of exploitation

Rehab in short supply

Pol Lt Col Kritsanapong Phutrakul, chairman of the Faculty of Criminology and Justice Administration at Rangsit University, said the new limit on possession is not a solution to the problem.

There have been around three million drug users in the country, with meth pills the most commonly used, followed by crystal meth or "ya ice". The new rule wants to treat the users and return them to society instead of imprisoning them, he said.

However, the new rule has a loophole that drug dealers can use to avoid prosecution, while police can exploit it by extorting money from those who are over the limit. Officers may agree to lower the amount to within the limit for a fee.

Another issue is the lack of rehabilitation centres. When drug addicts return to their familiar surroundings, they will likely return to their habit and get addicted again.

"The drug problems in Thailand have many dimensions, whereas the new rule only solves one aspect of the problem," said Pol Lt Col Kritsanapong.

"We have to make sure all addicts will be completely clean, while agencies must prevent increases in drug abuse and seriously tackle corruption and intensify law enforcement."

The government should also focus on having rehabilitation centres inside communities because the ones in hospitals and institutes are not enough. The government must have a specific agency to handle rehabilitation programmes in communities, he said.

Kritsanapong: Sceptical

He suggested the government introduce a pilot project in a community by establishing a rehabilitation centre. Cooperation should be from the working level to the policy level and include the monitoring of drug abuse among youths and tightening drug suppression cooperation with neighbouring countries.

He also stressed that the narcotics problem should be included in the school curriculum.

Ms Helen, 48, a former drug addict, said being sent to a rehabilitation centre is better than being in prison. She said the treatment period is between 45-120 days. However, there was no meaningful treatment inside a rehab centre. Officials showed up a few times to talk, but there was no advice or guidelines for drug addicts.

"They took us there because it was their job," she said.

Back to one meth pill

Deputy police spokesman, Pol Col Uthen Nuiphin, said the purpose of the new rule is to distinguish patients with drug problems from dealers. Theoretically, the principle can produce good outcomes, but it needs investigation by law enforcers to track down small and big-time dealers.

Dr Dutsadee Juengsiragulwit, director of the Mental Health Department's Mental Health Service Administration Bureau, cited information from the Ramathibodi Poison Center that illicit drug use has an effect on the brain and nervous system.

Consuming more than 55 milligrammes of meth, or more than two pills, can cause hallucinations and violence where users are at risk of hurting themselves or others.

"Taking more than 55 milligrammes will meet the criteria for being designated a high-risk psychiatric patient. Exceeding this amount has a delusional effect and increases the risk of making society unsafe," Dr Dutsadee said.

Ekapop Luengprasert, an adviser to the interior minister and founder of the Sai Mai Tong Rod or Survive Sai Mai Facebook page, said the possession limit should be just one pill.

The punishment should also be increased for repeat offenders, such as increasing the rehabilitation period from six months to one year, he said.

During the rehab process, authorities should initiate occupational training to enable them to reintegrate into society.

Mr Ekapop also pointed to a lack of rehab centres as some patients who willingly underwent rehab later had to continue their treatment at home. "This can lead them to drug use again," said Mr Ekapop.

He said the punishment was still very light. He added that when he asked former addicts about penalties, they said they were not afraid of treatment but were afraid of severe punishment.

In countries with very stiff punishments for drugs, few people dare to use drugs.

"Thailand should go back 20 years to a time when drug addiction was so severe that people who used drugs had to hide. It's different from the present when you can carry no more than a specified amount out of the house and claim that you need treatment," he said.

Ekapop: Lack of rehab centres

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