Note: This article is by far and away the most popular article on my blog. For everyone who came here by doing a google on "drugs in Thailand", please read carefully about the number of arrests, the penalties and the "war on drugs" in Thailand.
It must be easy to do drugs in Thailand. I mean, you've got all those full moon parties, backpackers and great night life. The police seem to be pretty easy going. I beat the weed is cheap too. It must be no problem, right?
Think again. No wait, go and read "The Damage Done" by Warren Fellows. Then think again.
Drug suppression and law enforcement
Thailand carries the death penalty for drug trafficking.
Many social structures in Thailand share some resemblance to their British counterparts. This not just coincidence. Thailand has a long history of scholarly links to England, in the past many members of Thai royalty have received their schooling within British shores.
One area of similarity is law, especially policy on drug suppression and jurisprudence. Yet the enforcement and penalties used by the two nations tell a different tale.
The most obvious difference in drug laws is the death penalty. In Thailand, possession of category one drugs "for the purpose of disposal" carries the death penalty, although this has not been used since 2004. The Narcotics Act is vague about category one drugs, simply stating "dangerous drugs such as Heroin".
Rehabilitation counselling is also mandatory in Thailand for all categories of drugs, so even a weed smoker would have to attend a course.
In the UK, the maximum penalty is life imprisonment. This is usually reserved for those who carry "class A" drugs with intent to supply. The Home Office is clearer about what drugs are class A: Ecstasy, LSD, heroin, cocaine, crack, magic mushrooms, amphetamines (if prepared for injection). Amphetamines have just been upgraded from class B to class A . I'd be grateful to anyone who can tell me what this drug is graded as in Thailand?
Thailand uses its regular police to fight narcotics traffickers but it has a special office - The Office of Narcotics Control Board - to do so. It also has a money laundering agency (AMLO). To my knowledge the UK has no dedicated office with the exception of Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency. (The UK utilises the Home Office for most of its anti money laundering measures)
Thailand's Narcotics Act specifies that a "competent official" ( defined as "any official appointed by the minister for execution of the act", so therefore all police officers I guess) has the right to question, detain, search the premises , search the person, and seize any drugs or any "properties used to commit an offence" when dealing with a drugs suspect. The law also stipulates the officer must act in "good faith", give his reasons for suspicion and record the event.
The UK law is remarkably similar. The 2005 Drugs Act gives police power to question, search and detain suspected drug dealers, though the PACE (Police and Criminal Evidence) act is clearer about the duties and responsibilities of the officer and also the conditions of the detention area.
Enforcement in practice
On the surface the legal framework seems nearly identical, however in practice, things are different. Firstly, Thailand's police have faced long and frequent accusations of abuse of power. A foreign teacher was recently arrested and sent to prison for possession of cannabis. He was smoking in his own apartment and was set up by a former girlfriend in a sting operation. He was later told that the cannabis seized from him by police had a ninety five percent chance of being re-sold by the police. I stress this is what I was told, I am not suggesting it is true.
Secondly, due to its proximity to the Golden Triangle and to ethnic resistance groups that supply drugs for weapon funds, Thailand has a greater volume of drug trafficking around its shores. The availability of drugs may be greater, but the frequency of raids and swift punishments is also greater.
Accountability: Don't expect the Thai police to go easy on you
Thailand has no Police Complaints Commission or anything similar to the UK version. There have been frequent calls for more control or accountability of the police and attempts at reform have been frequent. However, these efforts have always been heavily resisted. Three scholars at Thailand's top university once published a popular analysis of Thailand's illegal economy and stated "The police are unlikely to suppress activities with which they are heavily involved" (Phongpaichit, Piriyarangsan, Treerat, 1998)
How many people get busted?
It's hard to make a statistical comparison of drugs related arrests in Thailand and the UK. The best I can tell you is that in Thailand, the number of drugs related arrests was 215,209 in 2002 , 102407 in 2003 and 58,853 in 2004.
The most up to date figures I can acquire for the UK put the figure at 134,101 for 1999 and 124,345 for 2000.
No doubt the figure for 2002 and the sudden drop in 2003 and 2004 in Thailand jumped out at you. There is a reason for this: War on Drugs.
Thailand's war on drugs
In 2003 then PM Thaksin Shiniwat instigated the war on drugs. Thaksin claimed to be doing this in response to a speech from His Majesty The King who called for a solution to the methamphetimine problem that had been plaguing Thailand.
Thaksin cut a fantastic speech announcing the campaign as he explained clearly and forcefully that whoever was dealing with drugs, wherever they were, they must be dealt with. He repeatedly explained that funds and resources would be available to eradicate drugs in all districts. The speech was inspiring.
Then the hell began. Over the next three months , two thousand people died. Concerns about the police force were already widespread, now that same force was told to produce results or face the consequences. Suddenly, hundreds of alleged small time drugs dealers were shot dead, each time with a small packet of amphetamine found on their person. The police almost unerringly announced it was "silence killings" meaning one dealer shooting another dealer to prevent grassing.
The scariest thing about the war on drugs was the strength and vitriol behind some of the public speeches concerning the war on drugs and its heavy death toll.
It's difficult for me to write too much about this. See here for more.
So the message is, if you think Thailand is an easy place to get high, think again. The drug laws are strict, the penalities stricter and the enforcement agencies do not make allowances for foreigners.