Furthermore, incarceration is unlikely to produce much in the way of results. As IDPC executive director Ann Fordham points out, “Many of those now incarcerated in Thailand’s prisons are likely to be low-level traders and drug users, as they are more easy targets for police, rather than large scale traffickers and organized criminals.”
Dr. Michel Kazatchkine of the Global Commission on Drug Policy points adds that, far from being a success story, Thailand’s war on drugs has “failed by every metric you can think of.” He is particularly critical of the government’s failure to adequately address the spread of HIV among people who inject drugs.
UNAIDS data show that in Indonesia over 36% of individuals who inject drugs are HIV-positive. In Cambodia the number is nearly one-in-four addicts who inject their drugs, while Burma and Thailand have rates of 22%.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
“Based on the evidence highlighted in our report, we know that countries that treat addictions as a health issue are winning the fight against HIV,” says Dr.Kazatchkine.
Thousands more are detained in drug detention centers often run by police or military authorities, with very little expert treatment or other forms of rehabilitation available. Both the United Nations and Human Rights Watch have called for the closure of these centers in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Some go further. For example, the Gloria Lai of the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), a coalition of NGO’s involved in drug policy reform, explains that the group is campaigning to put an end to “the stigma and marginalization suffered by people who use drugs, and the disproportionately severe, punitive measures for personal drug use and possession.”
The consortium’s goals have been tacitly endorsed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon,who issued a statement in 2008 stating, “No one should be stigmatized or discriminated against because of their dependence on drugs. I look to Asian Governments to amend outdated criminal laws that criminalize the most vulnerable sections of society, and take all the measures needed to ensure they live in dignity.”
While ASEAN countries are clearly lagging behind other parts of the world, the reform lobby has been encouraged by many countries’ new willingness to at least consider alternative approaches.
In September, IDPC and the Transnational Institute (TNI) co-hosted a high-level seminar in Bangkok with the Thai Ministry of Justice Rights and Liberties Protection Department, which discussed how to more effectively manage drug problems in the context of public health issues.
Similarly, this year Indonesia and Malaysian government officials participated in a study tour in Portugal to learn about that country’s policies of decriminalization and offering voluntary treatment services for drug addicts.
Already the interaction is having positive results notes Nicholas Thomson of the John Hopkins School of Public Health and the Center for Law Enforcement and Public Health.
“I think it is clear that Asia can learn from Portugal. In Malaysia the rolling out and scaling up of harm reduction projects has been in part a result of senior police figures in Malaysia attending study tours in Portugal,” Thomson says.
The reformers argue that reducing HIV rates and improving community health treatment for addicts are far more realistic and worthy objectives than the impossible task of making the ASEAN region drug-free by 2015.
Tom Fawthrop is a Thailand-based journalist and producer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Al-Jazeera and the New Statesman, among other publications.