A Sensible Answer to Southeast Asia’s Drug Problems

In February of 2003, then-Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra launched a bloody “war on drugs” that lasted for three months and resulted in police killings of 2,800 suspects, only half of whom were later found to have anything to do with drugs. The rest may simply have been in the wrong place at the wrong time or were people a deeply corrupt police force wanted to get rid of.

Although prices soared for ya ba, as methamphetamine is known in Thailand, and thousands of users volunteered for treatment, the impact was short-lived. Those killed were almost all small time vendors if they had anything to do with drugs at all. No big fish were caught and cross-border trade in narcotics was barely interrupted. Some users turned from ya ba to other substances. Before very long, drug use was back to where it had been before the blood-letting.

If that sounds familiar, it should. Both Presidents Joko Widodo in Indonesia and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines have declared their own war on drugs. But in Thailand, where forward thinking is not what one has come to expect from the conservative military regime, a government that otherwise likes to suppress dissent and emphasizes the need for law and order, has proposed what for southeast Asia is a novel answer to what is seen as a major problem: drugs. It also provides a welcome contrast to the extra-judicial slaughter unleashed elsewhere.

Thai Justice Minister Paiboon Kumchaya announced last month that his ministry was consulting with relevant agencies over a proposal to exclude ya ba from the list of illegal narcotics. They are methamphetamine usually mixed with caffeine and occasionally other substances. They are the Thai equivalent of the Philippines’ most ubiquitous illegal narcotic colloquially known as shabu, a methamphetamine in pill, crystal or powder form that can be ingested, inhaled or injected. So far some 400 alleged shabu sellers and users have been gunned down by anonymous assailants since Duterte took office at the end of June – and the toll mounts daily.

Myanmar, Laos and even isolated North Korea are also all grappling with problems associated with production, use or smuggling of methamphetamines. Thailand however appears to have learned a lesson – also brutally. Paiboon noted that decades of waging war against narcotics had been a failure. Usage had actually increased. In the case of ya ba, ending its illegal status would encourage addicts to come forward for treatment.

Paiboon claimed medical evidence showed ya ba to be less harmful than alcohol and tobacco – both readily available, socially accepted substances. (Western doctors in Hong Kong once made the same point about opium being less of a public health hazard than alcohol).

In Indonesia on July 29, a firing squad shot four people – three of them from Africa and a fourth from Indonesia after the death penalty was revived by President Widodo, also known as Jokowi, drawing considerable foreign condemnation if mainly because several of the victims, including those in the latest episode, have been foreigners. Elsewhere the death penalty is used, though not extra-judicially, against drug vendors in other Southeast Asian countries including Malaysia and Singapore. Indonesia and Malaysia have also made efforts to increase treatment of addicts with compulsory treatment. They also enable the supply of needles to those using intravenous drugs in an effort to reduce the spread of HIV via needle-sharing.

However there may well be a danger that the whole drug issue is being exaggerated, that the efforts should be focused on rehabilitating confirmed addicts, especially of heroin, rather than a vain attempt to wipe out usage.

For instance, Jokowi quoted a figure of 4.5 million users which amounts to almost 3 percent of the adult population. However, of those only 1 million are classed as addicts and addicts include anyone using drugs more than 49 times a year. Once a week is a broad definition of addict. The other 3.5 million so called users include 1.6 million who have once used a drug.

Nor is it clear whether the drug situation has deteriorated significantly. Shabu has been widely available in the Philippines for at least two decades and any increase may simply be a reflection of the rise in the urban population with ready access to it. There is nothing new about young people getting high at parties whether using alcohol or illegal substances, and it is well known that cocaine use is widespread among the children of the Manila elite – none of whom are liable to be shot on the street by someone riding pillion on a motorcycle. Indeed the parents now cheering Duterte’s cynical onslaught may well have been occasional users too in their youth. The death toll to date suggests that it is the poor, whether vendors or users who are mainly being killed, not the better off.

Keeping drugs out of archipelagic countries with vast coastlines would be almost impossible even if the police and other law enforcers were all clean – which they are not.

Nor do most laws draw much if any distinction between types of drugs – such as between opium and marijuana and heroin. Illegality also results in varying levels of strength and composition in shabu and ya ba. These variations are seen as responsible for many drug-related deaths. The illegality of shabu and similar substances also leads to much petty theft by users to support the habit.

As it is, in much of Southeast Asia, anti-drug campaigns have filled the prisons – half of the prison population in Malaysia for example – without suppressing either demand or supply. Prisons are no place for rehabilitation, particularly as drugs often circulate there too. Meanwhile the people who make the big money from the trade, those who control the cross-border shipments and the factories making pills and powders, are rarely ever caught, Duterte’s loudly expressed campaign to go after generals, judges and politicians notwithstanding. Even less often are their profits not successfully laundered via legal trade or through casinos.

In open societies, the selective drug war cannot be won. Sensible policies focus on mitigating the drug impact on health and on other crimes. President Duterte needs not only to abide by the nation’s laws, but to learn some lessons from Thaksin and Thailand of what not to do. He could start by inviting Paiboon to advise its ASEAN neighbor.

Philip Bowring is a founder and contributing editor to Asia Sentinel. A version of this appeared on Asia Free Radio.