The never-ending struggle against the drug trade in Thailand and the culture of impunity around it

The drug trade in Thailand is valued at US $71 billion (2.2 trillion baht) in 2020. That is a fourfold increase from 2014 when Prayut Chan-ocha took power.

But apart from the staggering raw numbers of drug production in the region is the human cost that is often unreported and the culture of impunity, prosecution, and legal grey areas of the border regions that has fueled the drug trade and driven it underground.

The approach of the Thai government, when it comes to viewing drug-related crime, and the justice system has also created a culture that fuels an endless cycle of prosecution, incarceration, and corruption.


Northern Thailand, and its porous border with Myanmar, has been the production hub for methamphetamines for Southeast Asia and by extension, the world.

It is fair to say that methamphetamines is the financial backbone of transnational organized crime groups and armed ethnic groups in the region. Of the $71 billion dollar drug trade, methamphetamine accounted for $61 billion (1.9 trillion baht) of the total.

But what is often missed is that for many hill-tribes and stateless people that live in and around the region, the growing of Opium is a means to survival.

For many, Opium is grown as a cash crop.

The latest statistics show that the price of the raw opium is 800 baht per kilogramme. Authorities estimate that some 113,550 persons from the region grow opium as a cash crop. They have the capacity to produce a gross output of 75,700 kg of raw opium.

While Thailand has decriminalized more than 100 drugs including cocaine, morphine, opium, oxycodone, fentanyl and codeine for medical and research use in July 2021, possession is only granted to governmental organisation, permitted pharmacies and health workers.

That means that for families in the area, not only are they practicing subsistence farming and growing a crop that is ostensibly illegal, they are forced under the protection or oversight of corrupt officials or drug cartels.

No way out

Currently, those caught trafficking or growing illicit drugs face life imprisonment and a fine from one million baht to five million baht.

Or the death penalty.

Since Thailand has started ‘war on drugs’ the government exercised ‘zero tolerance’ polices to drug offenders. Corrupt officials have also been known to harbor their own personal drug empires, complete with extrajudicial violence, impunity from prosecution, and a blind eye from headquarters in Bangkok. Just Google Joe Ferrari.

Those that do not operate within the cartel/official trading ecosystem go to jail. Many imprisoned are small-time dealers or youths. More than 80% of prisoners in Thailand are drug offenders and more than half of those cases are still on-going.

Thailand Institute of Justice points out that the overcrowded prisons in Thailand is caused by faulty laws. For example, the 2002 amendment to the Narcotic Drug Act of 1979, reduced the criteria of “intent to sell” possession of methamphetamine from 20 g to 375 mg. This is much less than neighboring countries including Australia and

Propaganda and stigmatisation

Critics also argue that there is a culture of stigmatisation against drug offenders and suspects.

Thai people were taught to shun drug dealers and drug addicts in their neighbourhood. This created a barrier for rehabilitated offenders from re-entering society. Temples used to prohibit the cremation of drug-related suspects and victims of overdose.  

As a result, addicts and drug offenders were not given the support of the community or the families.

Approximately 140,000 people released from prison each year have trouble reintegrating and finding work because of the culture of stigmatization. Laws are also in place that prohibits former inmates from finding work in certain fields. This includes the Lawyers Act, 1985, Civil Service Act, 2008, Medical Profession Act, 1982, National Police Act, 2004, B.E. The Government Teachers and Educational Personnel Regulations Act, BE 2547 (2004) just to name a few.

As a result, the rate of recidivism to prison in Thailand was and continues to be high with offenders not receiving the help they need to re-enter society.

Joe Ferrari not isolated

The country was shocked when footage emerged of a local police chief tortured and killed a drug suspect inside a local police station with a plastic bag. They were even more shocked to find the police chief, nicknamed Joe Ferrari by the press, was exceptionally wealthy with dozens of sports cars and a high society lifestyle.

They should not be shocked. Joe Ferrari is not an isolated case or an especially abnormal happening.

In 2003, more than 2,819 drug suspects were extrajudicially killed by the government imposed “war on drugs.”

Extrajudicial killings, extrajudicial arrests, methods of torture to extract information about drug trafficking ring became the norm. 

The culture of impunity and the culture of stigmatization has contributed to a climate where drug offenders lives are rendered meaningless and security personnel have almost carte blanche to prescribe justice as they see fit.

Possible solutions

  • Law amendments – Pass law on protection of all persons from enforced disappearance, torture, inhuman and degrading treatments. Thailand has signed but has yet to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.  Thailand still has no law on Enforced Disappearance, there has been a proposal for the parliament to consider adopting law against enforced disappearances and torture. However, the proposal has reached the parliamentary committee but has not yet been in the legislative process in the parliament. 

Secondly, adopt a law to protect the right of the ‘whistle blower’. Usually torturing and extrajudicial killings and arrests are done by the police or military officials, and the heinous truth is usually revealed from an insider. Such as the case of death by suffocation and torturing in Nakhon Sawan, the main evidence which is the video clip was released by one of the police officers. 

Thirdly, Draft law to criminal justice officials – judges, 3-20 years in prison if they distort the law. Move Forward Party proposed a law the essence of the figure This Act is to add the base of offenses into the Criminal Code Part 2 Offenses Title 3 Offenses relating to justice Chapter 2 Offenses against the position of justice including the offense “Distortion of the law” of justice officials. for the benefit or damage to the injured person, the accused or any party.

  • Selection of military and police ombudsman by the members of parliament’s quota. Recently, there is a petition for constitutional amendments, the campaign was called ‘Resolution’, which gained 150,921 signatures (only 50,000 signatures is required). Within the amendment’s draft there’s an article for military and police ombudsman to provide checks and balances, oversees the military and police departments operations, detect corruptions, and monitor budgets and expenses.  
  • Create alternative cash-crops for hill-tribes people, a career, occupational skills (vocational training, and education)  for drug-related offenders. Undeniably, 113,550 persons from hill-tribes would live in poverty if they do not find an alternative cash crop or another career. But having another career requires a skill-set that they might not have. Most of hill-tribes people do not identify themselves as Thai, they do not practice the same language and usually are excluded from the majority Thais. Replacing cash crops or other means of livelihood requires a great deal of supervision, instruction and help in achieving new techniques and skills. They are aware that growing opium is illegal and has a devastating effects in their future if they are caught because of high sentencing on drugs charges which also has a death penalty for possession of more than 20 kilograms of category 1 drugs.  Nevertheless, growing opium is the only way of life they have known. The only farming technique they have, and opium has always had demands in the market which they know. It is the only wealth they possess. If a change is necessary, the tribes would welcome it if it can be convincing to them that it is a change for a better life of all.[18]
  • Drugs liberalisation – (process of decriminalisation and legalisation) Thailand has decriminalised category 1 and category 5 drugs (opium, cocaine, marijuana and etc.). However, the only party who is allowed to own the production and manufacturing sector is the government’s monopoly. By breaking down monopoly and letting private and individual (with permission) to sell (with medical prescription) and produce medicinal opium, morphine and marijuana with strict regulations and taxation. Currently, only the government is benefited from the legal drugs trade. 
  • Abolish prison sentence for drugs charges and focusing on rehabilitation (for drugs addicts), vocational training and education in prison. Replace the imprisonment with Day-Fine System or incarceration with financial punishment according to the person’s income and wealth.[19]
  • Establish a separated ‘drug court’ for drug addict which carries no prison sentence but only focusing on rehabilitation and mental health. Applying victim-approach methods instead of treating them like criminals. Taking examples of New Zealand, Australia and the U.S.’s drug court models.  
  • A clean slate process for former convicts who haven’t reoffended with in the last 7 years, never been sentenced to custodial sentence (such as prison, corrective training or borstal), never been convicted of a sexual offence, a non-violent offender, fully paid any fine, compensation, reparation or cost ordered by the court, convicts with mental illness. Taking examples of [20]
  • Stop social stigmatisation on drug offenders or ex-convicts. Thai people need to change their perspectives on ex-con
  • Elevating workers’ skills – vocational and high school education should be provided. Education is also major issue teaching methods is not for analytical thinking but rather brainwashing. Students should be encouraged to debate and show their analytical and critical thinking skills because that is where you develop those skills. Prisoners should be able to access equitable education funds and development and vocational training in order to pursue a future career.
  • Attract investments in other industries in order to provide jobs in different fields to increase employment rate. Unemployment rate is high in Thailand due to lack of industries for people to apply for well-paid jobs. Example, chemist student cooking ecstasy lab instead of working in a scientific research and development. Creating a tax haven for companies to make a foreign direct investment (FDI) without having to pay too much tax in order to attract investors taking examples of Silicone Valley or Nissan in Sunderland ,in order to increase employment rate in different industries. (however, according a foreign company can only own 49% of the share of a company established in Thailand as a protectionist policy)


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