BANGKOK — When a government official declared drugs the winner in the “War on Drugs” Thursday, it sounded like something from the satirical pages of The Onion.
But that’s exactly what happened Thursday when Justice Minister Paiboon Koomchaya offered the highest-profile break from three decades of rhetoric at a narcotics conference, where he said eradication has proven a lost cause.
“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 Thursday. “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 acknowledged that he wasn’t just struck with the idea, but his attitude evolved from briefings at a U.N. conference on narcotics he attended in April in New York City.
The shift reflects the broader rethink of decades of anti-drug zeal which have espoused a punitive, zero-tolerance approach.
“But this approach is now facing strong challenges from several sources. Uruguay and several US states have legalized marijuana, and countries as varied as Portugal and Jamaica have decriminalized some or all drug use,” Human Rights Watch’s Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno wrote in September in Harvard International Review. “The Global Commission on Drug Policy, a panel of world leaders and prominent intellectuals, has asserted that ‘the global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences.’”
Breaking from the decades-long, tough-on-drugs stance, Paiboon suggested it’s high time Thailand focus on helping, not jailing, drug users and relaxing its stringent drugs laws.
With its strategic position as a major transit hub of the regional narcotics trade, Thailand has had its share of stern, bloody campaign on drugs, most notably the one announced by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, in which at least 2,500 people were essentially executed without trial, something more comfortably described in local media as “extrajudicial killings.”
Like in other countries taking steps to draw down the war on drugs – notably the United States, its global architect – Thai prisons are overwhelmed with petty drug convicts, thanks to drug laws that care little about differentiating between users, small scale dealers and major distributors.
Paiboon gave a nod to the history which has brought Thailand to this point. The United States first declared “war on drugs” in 1971 in response to its counterculture movement. In a bid to shut down the supply chain, it exported this cultural war by enticing other nations to adopt harsh drug laws in return for foreign aid. It worked, especially in developing supply regions such as Southeast Asia, where many governments already had authoritarian bents and were happy to oblige.
Thus the significance of Paiboon’s keynote address Thursday, in which he hinted it all could change.
“The United States also once declared a war on drugs, and in the end, they surrendered, and fixed their regulations and laws,” the general said. “So, let me say that Thailand should stop using only suppression … Solving the narcotics problem comes in three stages: suppression, prevention and rehabilitation.”
According to Paiboon, upcoming changes may include changing drug laws to lessen jail time, treating drug users as victims instead of criminals and even removing narcotics like methamphetamines from the list of banned substances.
Asking if they’re ready to decriminalize methamphetamines, most widely distributed and consumed locally as yaba, Paiboon said, “I dare to do it … I am studying how to solve this, in order to make it a normal substance again.”
His last remark was seized on by many, especially in the media, as an announcement the military government was set to decriminalize yaba. Speaking to reporters Friday, Paiboon denied that was the case, but insisted that authorities must rethink realistically about meth.
“Now that we have declared yaba as a Category 1 drug, it’s necessary to study whether it’s appropriate, because the adverse effects of yaba aren’t any worse than other substances that are in common use [like alcohol and cigarettes],” he said.
He suggested it may take the public some time to come around to what law enforcement already understands.
“In my personal opinion, I’m willing to make yaba a normal drug. Emphasis on my personal opinion. Because I understand these kind of issues. People who are in the circles of preventing and suppressing narcotics would understand this issue well.”
Additional reporting Todd Ruiz