In the wake of an agreement reached last year, US military forces operating out of Chaing Mai, in northern Thailand, are training Thai troops in counternarcotics enforcement in an effort to slow the flow of heroin and methamphetamine coming into the country from neighboring Burma (Myanmar). There, the rebel United Wa State Army operates large-scale methamphetamine factories to supplement its traditional role of Golden Triangle heroin broker.
Thai authorities consider methamphetamine the nation's most severe drug problem, with the number of users estimated at one million, with 200,000 to 300,000 in Bangkok alone. They accuse the Wa Army of smuggling meth tablets by the hundreds of millions annually, and reported seizing 25 million tablets last year.
But even as the Thai military ratchets up its endless war against drug smugglers, signs of fatigue and frustration have begun to appear within the country's political class. At least twice in the last year, highly-placed politicians have called for state control or legalization of the methamphetamine trade, and last week the Thai Interior Minister announced that he would institute a program to remove drug offenders from the country's prisons and instead rehabilitate them.
The first crack in the wall came nearly a year ago, when Man Patanothai, assistant secretary to the interior minister, suggested the Thai government sell methamphetamine at low prices to drive traffickers out of business and to lessen the social harm of addiction.
"I have talked with US drug experts who suggested an eye-for-an-eye approach," he told the Bangkok Post. "The state can sell methamphetamine at 15-20 bhat (roughly 40 to 50 US cents) a pill through its hospitals and clinics, but every buyer must also buy curing pills. The US government will support the idea if we dare implement it," he said.
Man's assessment of US support for a legalized meth market is clearly misinformed and his resort to "curing pills" that do not as yet exist is somewhat quixotic, but his pronouncement represented a startling paradigm-shift in a country that has traditionally responded to drug use and trafficking with severe prison sentences in legendarily nasty prisons. There are currently 130,000 people serving time on drug charges in Thailand.
Man blamed the escalating campaign against methamphetamine for jamming the country's prisons and suggested that officials ease up on young users to help stem prison overcrowding.
"When methamphetamine was made a grade 1 drug like heroin, anyone caught with a few pills ended up in jail," he said. "Teenagers should be given rehabilitation and put on probation so they can hopefully return to the right path," Man added, "but if they go to jail, they may become cruel criminals because prisons are hell on earth."
Man also brazenly referred to police corruption, asking the police to refrain from planting drugs on people they dislike. "The righteous performance of the police could also help relieve prisons," he added.
A few months later, Man's notion got a second when Senator Kavi Spathira called for legalization of amphetamines. The senator, a member of the senate's government affairs committee, told the Thai News Agency in October that state stores should sell the drug.
"The government should set up drug stores nationwide to sell the drug at one baht a tablet to control the supply and demand of the drug," he told Interior Ministry officials.
Kavi said such a policy would undermine the United Wa State Army, which has been giving Thai authorities fits for years even as they have moved aggressively to reduce opium production at home.
"The Wa would be severely hurt by this measure," he said.
Interior Minister Purachai Piemsomboon didn't mention the Wa last week when he announced the plan to move drug offenders out of the prisons and shift enforcement emphasis from users and small-scale drug sellers to big-time traffickers. Instead, he spoke of prison overcrowding and the need for rehabilation -- not jail -- for drug addicts.
"Prisons are meant for serious criminals. We will propose new ways for the courts to punish petty criminals," Purachai told a press conference in Bangkok.
It doesn't appear, however, that Thai drug offenders can now expect Betty Ford Center-style help. They will be sent to military and police bases, Purachai said, and supervised by police or soldiers. It is not known what sort of drug treatment capabilities the Thai police and military possess.