Thailand and the International Drug Trade: Part II: Where do the drugs end up? What’s next for Thailand?

This is a two-part article. Part I discussed the history of the narcotics trade in Thailand and the recent 11.5 ton ketamine bust in Chachoengsao Province.

The market in recent years

The COVID-19 pandemic has only expanded the drug trade. According to a report released earlier this year by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), drug production has continued at “record levels” while governments shifted their attention to the pandemic. While border closures have prevented drug networks from using couriers in the guise of tourists to transport drugs, the shipment of cargo across borders, as well as illicit border crossings, has continued unabated.

These findings confirm the unmistakable trend seen over the last few years; drugs from Thailand are being seized with great frequency across the Asia-Pacific. Japanese authorities identified Thailand as the largest single source of meth shipments in 2018. Australia and New Zealand have also seized shocking amounts of meth from Thailand in 2019, with Australian authorities seizing 1.6 tons in June and New Zealand seizing 452 kilograms a few months later in September. Taiwan has also regularly reported seizures of ketamine transported from Thailand in its territory; the nation is particularly vulnerable to transnational criminal operations due to its inability to officially participate in international law enforcement efforts.

What’s next? Is decriminalization the answer?

While the Thai police are seeing record seizures, they are aware that the amount seized could only be about 20% of all the substances passing through the country. Privately, officials acknowledge that there is little else that could be done to stem the tide. 

“Thailand is at this turning point where it’s not sure if it wants to wage the drug war as in the past,” author Patrick Winn highlights. “It’s waging the drug war in the spirit of the American drug war, cruising along, catching shipments of meth, but privately if you talk to the anti-narcotics police they will admit that there’s no end in sight and they’re not really achieving anything.”

The fact that massive amounts of drugs are being produced in northeast Myanmar, in territory controlled not by the Myanmar government but by Shan ethnic armed forces, means that Thailand can do little to crack down on production at the source. The heavily forested nature of Thailand’s lengthy frontier with both Myanmar and Laos means that strict border control is not an option, unless the country is willing to invest massive amounts of money to construct a border wall, as China is currently doing on parts of its border with Myanmar.

In 2016, junta-appointed justice minister Paiboon Khumcha-ya publicly advocated for yaba to be struck from the list of illegal drugs, as he believed it was something the Thai public simply had to accept and mitigate as part of life. 

“For the past 28 years, the global perspective was to free the world from drug use by engaging in ‘wars’,” said Paiboon, “but having worked on this issue for a very long time…we instead have to learn how to coexist with drugs, like a person with terminal cancer who has to learn to live with their cancer.”

Over the past few years, the government has begun to incrementally soften its approach towards narcotics. As of this year, marijuana has been approved for limited medical use, and the prospects of recreational use being authorized is growing. In November 2020, cocaine and some other Schedule II substances were also approved for limited medical use.

Is decriminalization possible in a transit and a consumer country?

Thailand’s predicament arises from the fact that it is both a conduit and a consumer of drugs. This dual status poses several challenges to the government. On the one hand, Thailand faces problems familiar to any consumer country: the public health impact of drug usage and the pressure placed on the incarceration system. On the other hand, it also faces problems unique to transit countries: mistrust of the country’s travelers and cargo abroad.

As a result, the country may not be able to simply adopt policy ideas introduced in consumer countries. Certain Western jurisdictions, such as Portugal, have committed to an approach based on decriminalization and public health protection with positive results. In Portugal, drug users are treated as patients, not criminals, and the possession of drugs for personal use is considered an administrative offense punishable by fines and community service, not prison sentences. Apprehended drug users are referred to a local committee of medical, legal, and social work professionals.

However, as a conduit country, Thailand has to show the world that it is not simply letting itself be used as a superhighway for drugs, lest it suffers serious harm to its international reputation. Among other reasons, it is hard to imagine that Thai citizens would enjoy visa-free entry privileges to countries such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan were drugs to be decriminalized. This would likely remain the case unless there is a massive shift in drug use policies in the world’s major economies.

Nevertheless, a more nuanced approach that falls short of full decriminalization could still yield real benefits for Thailand. At least 70% of all prisoners in the Thai incarceration system were arrested for meth-related crimes alone. The sheer number of these prisoners places severe strain on the system, giving Thai prisons their notorious reputation for violence and crowdedness. By shifting resources from incarceration to treatment and public health promotion, Thailand could see better outcomes on both fronts.

In the end, without a concerted transnational approach to stemming the production and transportation of narcotics across the Golden Triangle, it is likely that Thai authorities will see more massive drug busts in future. Seizures across the region are unfortunately likely to increase in frequency and volume, and continue far into the future.

Correction: Part I cited that there were some 2,800 extrajudicial killings during Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s ‘War on Drugs’ in 2003. However, while the Official Report of the Independent Commission does indeed say that there were 2,873 deaths during the February – April 2003 drug war, it is important to contextualize this with the number of extra-judicial killing cases before and after the drug war.

There were 1,314 cases of extra-judicial killing in 2002 and 1,299 cases in 2004 – as such, 2003’s figure of 2,559 (which informed the total tally of 2,873 deaths) is only 1,245 higher than the figure in 2002 and 1,260 higher than that of 2004. As such, the 2,873 deaths cannot be attributed in totality to the ‘War on Drugs’.

However, the Independent Commission’s Report notes that this is still an unusually high number of extra-judicial killings. From the Commission’s perspective, those responsible for the drug war policy should be held accountable according to internationally recognized human rights laws.


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