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Lessons For Duterte, Why Thailand Softened Its Drug War

The current deadly war on drugs in the Philippines echoes what happened in Thailand in the early 2000s — massive arrests and a wave of extrajudicial killings. Officials in Bangkok now admit the crackdown didn't work, th

Thai police officer and seized drugs at the police HQ in Bangkok
Thai police officer and seized drugs at the police HQ in Bangkok
Kannikar Petchkaew

BANGKOK — Winai was just 12 years old when he started taking amphetamine pills. Weeks later, he was buying and selling them too.

"I was addicted to them from my first go," recalls Winai, not his real name. "It felt good, taking the drug and also making money from selling. I bought each pill for 30 baht $0.80 and then sold them for 80 $2.30. So I was getting rich."

Winai dropped out of school and spent the next 15 years dealing drugs and committing petty crime. In 2005, he was arrested and charged with attempted murder, theft and drug use. He was sentenced to 12 years in jail, but later served only four years due to good behavior.

Yet when Winai was released, he went straight back into dealing and using drugs. "We ran into our old circles inside the jail — the big dealers or big bosses," Winai said. "We learned all the bad things from them and promised them that once we were out we would go to their wives, take the drugs and be a mule for them. That's pretty much how it turned out."

It was back in 2003, with an escalating number of high-profile drug cases, that the Thai government declared a war on drugs. Police were given a license to use "extreme measures" to curb the sale of drugs like ecstasy and methamphetamines.

The three-month reign of police terror left at least 2,000 people dead. Winai says he was too young and too intoxicated to be afraid.

Paiboon Koomchaya, an army general and the minister of justice in Thailand's current military-controlled government, looks back on the harsh crackdown as a total failure. "Massive arrests and harsh punishment just lead to a massive loss of lives. And now every country faces the same problem: overcrowded jails," he says.

The number of inmates jailed for drug convictions has nearly doubled over the past decade. With a prison population of more than 300,000, Thailand now has the eighth-highest incarceration rate in the world, according to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research. Some 70% of inmates are serving time for drug-related offenses.

Opting for a new approach

Koomchaya says the country's proposed new anti-narcotics laws will help shift the focus toward rehabilitation, rather than incarceration. "To deal with drug offenders we will focus on their rights to access proper healthcare services and the right to be cured," the minister says. "Access to proper medication can help them stop taking drugs."

But Koomchaya also wants it to be clear that Thailand is going soft on drugs, and capital punishment for major drug offenses will continue to be applied. "Big-time drug dealers will face harsh penalties. Even as we soften the drug policy, we will still have the death penalty," says.

Winai says he has been clean for three years now — since his daughter was born. He lives with his wife in northern Thailand and runs a food stall.

Winai says the new approach, rehab rather than jail, could really help. Going to jail, spending time with other criminals and dealers doesn't work, he says. "When faced with the same friends, the same environment, there will be the same problem. They will be lulled back into it again and again."

But even if the new law is passed later this year, changes may be slow to arrive. There are only a limited number of rehabilitation centers across the country, although the government does plan to build four more.

Of course the region is infamous for the Golden Triangle, a huge drug production hub in the hills of the border area of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. "We need to seal off the Golden Triangle," Koomchaya says. "Without that we can't solve this problem. We need to destroy these drug production sites."

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