Hallucinating About Drugs
The Nation (Thailand)
Thu, 25 May 2006
Thaksin's claimed surge in drug in drug use is not borne out by statistics from the top anti-narcotics agency
When caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra announced last week that he would resume active duty following a 45-day vacation, he suggested the country needed him at the helm to deal effectively with a plethora of problems that had cropped up in his absence. One of the key problems cited to justify his return to the political centre stage was the supposed higher incidence of drug addiction among young people.
With more than a hint of drama, Thaksin made his announcement in front of a group of supporters who claimed to be grieving parents whose children had supposedly fallen prey to amphetamine addiction. It was not clear if the meeting between Thaksin and drug addicts' parents was a coincidence or whether it was stage-managed, but television viewers couldn't have missed the allusion to a knight in shining armour coming to the rescue of a damsel in distress.
If only Thaksin could back up his claim with reliable and accurate statistics to show that the scourge of drugs has come back with a vengeance and that the society as a whole is in jeopardy as a result.
A group of journalists went to Office of the Narcotics Control Board ( ONCB ), the government's leading agency in the fight against illicit drugs, to look for evidence of the "worsening drug situation" spoken of by the caretaker prime minister, and found none to support his claim.
According to the ONCB, there has been no indication whatsoever that the drug situation is getting worse. Indeed, the anti-drug agency's statistics point to the opposite: the number of arrests in connection with drug trafficking has dropped dramatically in the past three years.
In 2002, the number of drugs-related arrests hit an all-time high of 215,209. The number of arrests dropped to 102,417 in 2003, 55,505 in 2004, 58,853 in 2005, and 13,712 in the first quarter of this year.
Methamphetamines have been the most popular drug among addicts and casual users in Thailand. The synthetic drug can be cheaply produced using widely available chemicals, which also have legitimate uses, in makeshift laboratories along the porous border between Thailand and Burma.
Several drug kingpins backed by personal armies, based in Burma and thus beyond the reach of Thai law enforcement, are capable of moving their amphetamine-producing labs to avoid detection and adjusting their production at short notice in response to the rise and fall in demand. Unlike producers of drugs like opium, heroin and marijuana, they don't have to wait for drug-yielding plants to grow.
According to the latest available estimates, there are about three million people in this country who have dabbled with drugs at one time or another. Of those, about 10 per cent, or 300,000, are regular drug users.
There is no denying that the sharp reduction in the number of drugs-related arrests can be attributed to the Thaksin administration's bloody war against traffickers in 2003. More than 2,000 suspected drug traffickers were killed during the six-month campaign that started in February 2003. During this period, the government appeared to have given tacit permission for police to implement targeted killings of suspected drug traffickers. The killings tarnished Thailand's human-rights record and attracted worldwide condemnation, but there was scant criticism at home thanks to Thaksin's mastery of propaganda.
Thaksin declared victory in the 2003 drug war but subsequently declared several more wars against drugs after he found that doing so enabled him to score easy political points.
Let's hope the ONCB does not get into trouble for the professionalism with which it compiles its statistics and for sharing such information with members of the press so the public can make their own assessment of the drug situation and distinguish between reality and Thaksin's political spin.
Lest people believe they need a superhero like Thaksin to keep the drug situation under control, society should keep sight of the fundamental fact that the war on drugs cannot be won unless Thailand succeeds in reducing the demand for drugs, in addition to law enforcement. As such, the war on drugs will necessarily take time and people should be sceptical about any quack doctor offering quick fix.