BANGKOK — Despite some changes at the top, a quiet push to relax the country’s harsh drug laws continues.
A year after the top justice official made a splash by declaring Thailand had lost the so-called War on Drugs and calling for more realistic narcotics policies, efforts to amend the laws to allow limited uses of banned substances are moving forward, albeit out of the public eye.
While Justice Minister Paiboon Khumchaya is no longer in power, his initiative, which surprised many and made waves in the media, was not set aside.
Just two months ago, the law was changed to allow farmers to grow hemp, and another edict allowing full legalization – cultivation, use but not sale – of kratom, a banned herbal stimulant, is expected next year. Legal amendments for marijuana and amphetamines to be used for medical treatment are being debated.
Mana Siripithayawat, a director at the Office of Narcotics Control Board, said the changes are consistent with UN consensus to move away from harsh suppression and punitive tactics to more pragmatic policies to manage use. Mana said the authorities have no wish to repeat the bloody drug war that left 2,500 dead two decades ago.
“You can put me on record saying this: We have tried the Philippines way, and it failed,” said Mana, who’s in charge of the agency’s laws department, referring to the policies put in place in that country since the election of Rodrigo Duterte that have seen an estimated 13,000 slain in extra-judicial killings.
In 2003, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra declared open season on suspected drug offenders and roughly 2,800 killings ensued. About half of those killed were later determined to have been uninvolved in the drug trade.
“It only had an effect for a short time, but it wasn’t a sustainable solution. The UN is looking for a sustainable solution,” Mana said.
Rattapon Sanrak, founder of a group that advocates for legalization of cannabis, said decriminalizing drugs for medical purposes is a move in the right direction but warned legal complication can still arise.
“The people who issue the laws still don’t fully understand it … how to regulate, what to allow and what not to allow. I think they are still confused, ”said Rattapon, whose group Highland disseminates knowledge about proper cultivation techniques. “In the end there is no clear regulation, and there would be problems.”
He cited examples in the United States where certain drugs decriminalization efforts conflict with other existing regulations.
Thailand is notorious for its draconian drug laws, in which possession of a tiny amount of certain drugs is automatically ruled to be an attempt to sell and punished with lengthy jail term. A majority of inmates in overcrowded prisons are for drug offense.
So when Paiboon, an army general and junta member, was appointed justice minister in 2014, every expectation was that he would keep to three decades of tough-on-drugs rhetoric. But Paiboon, then 61, surprised many after he returned from an April 2016 UN conference on narcotics preaching progressive drug policies.
“Thirty years ago, we talked about a War on Drugs. We stated clearly that there must not be any narcotics left on earth,” Gen. Paiboon said in June 2016. “But when I joined this meeting in April, it’s not like that anymore. To put it simply: It’s about how do we live happily [as a society] with drugs, and how can everyone understand it, and benefit from it?”
Paiboon went on to urge anti-narcotics agencies to consider easing restrictions.
“The United States also once declared a war on drugs, and in the end, they surrendered, and fixed their regulations and laws,” the general had said. “So, let me say that Thailand should stop using only suppression … Solving the narcotics problem comes in three stages: suppression, prevention and rehabilitation.”
Paiboon is no longer the head of the justice ministry – he was appointed adviser to King Vajiralongkorn in December. But his vision lives on. Not only one but four legal amendments concerning banned substances are underway: hemp, kratom, marijuana and amphetamines.
Amphetamines are currently scheduled as Category 1 narcotics, while hemp, kratom and cannabis are Category 5. Substances in either category cannot be licensed for medical use or even researched.
The first amendment, passed in August and set to come into effect Jan. 1, allows farmers to obtain licenses to grow hemp for sale to the textile and food industries. At first, private farms will have to register through state agencies, Mana said. In this case, the tobacco agency and royal farming project will handle the task.
There’s also ongoing amendment of the 1979 Narcotics Act concerning kratom, a type of plant known for its stimulant effect. It is illegal to use or own kratom, and police often raid homes to look for the plants, which are widely grown in southern Thailand.
But Mana said the current laws don’t take into the account the reality that kratom’s properties are more akin to traditional herbs than hard drugs. Many farmers and manual laborers have chewed it for decades if not centuries, he said.
“We see kratom as a part of traditional ways of life,” Mana said.
In a legal amendment, which is currently under review by state law scholars, residents will be able to grow kratom for personal use, given they register the plants with local law enforcement and refrain from selling them. Kratom also cannot be mixed with other substances to increase its potency.
The same amendment will include marijuana. The revised bill, once enacted, will allow the substance to be used for medical research. Current provisions bar any use, including for research, which Mana said is hindering Thai medical advances.
“There is research that some substances extracted from marijuana can be used in treating cancer. Right now we can extract them but we cannot research them any further,” Mana said. “We have volunteers who are willing to test it on themselves, but the law doesn’t allow them to do it. So we have to improve the law.”
But don’t cue the Bob Marley and bust out the glow-in-the-dark bongs just yet. Although drug officials initially floated decriminalizing marijuana for recreational use, they dropped the idea from the final draft.
“There is currently no plan to make marijuana legal for recreational use,” the official said.
Upon hearing the news, Rattapon from Highland said he wasn’t surprised. The more important issue, he said, are the excessive jail terms given to those caught using cannabis for personal leisure.
“I understand that perhaps it’s the not yet a time for legal recreational use, but we need to talk about reducing punishment. Do people who use marijuana for recreation deserve such a high sentence?” Rattapon said.
He added that marijuana offense should be punished by fines, not jail time.
The provisions in the 1979 drug law concerning kratom and marijuana are being reviewed by the Council of State, an agency empowered to settle disputes over interpretation of the law. Mana expects the draft will be debated and approved by the interim parliament early next year. By his “personal estimate,” the new amendments will be effective by mid-2018.
Amphetamine are the last slated for recategorization. While widely known as the base substance for speed in drugs such as ice, ya ba and meth, Mana said several variants are useful for medical research.
He said Thai researchers want to study two strains already available elsewhere in the world for use in treating attention-deficit disorders and diminished mental capacity, such as can occur from excessive chemotherapy.
Modafinil and armodafinil, marketed under brand names Provigil and Nuvigil, can also potentially be used in ya ba substitution therapy, but all research and testing is forbidden under the law.
The Office of Narcotics Board and health officials are discussing plans to decriminalize amphetamines for medical uses, he said. Mana believes a decision will be reached by December.
As with marijuana, they are still open to decriminalizing amphetamines for recreational use, Mana said.
Rattapon, the cannabis advocate, said his group has not given up campaigning for changes. Thailand’s first ever “Global Marijuana March” is being planned for May in Bangkok to raise awareness about recreational use of weed, he said.