Towards a more effective, humane policy on drugs in Thailand

Economy August 10, 2016 01:00



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IN A COUNTRY like ours where drug offences are punishable by death, the proposal in June by the Justice Ministry to soften our policies on methamphetamine was indeed a big surprise.

Under the revised law, methamphetamine will be removed from the controlled-substances list and treated differently from hard drugs like heroin.

Meth abusers will also be viewed as patients and sent to rehabilitation camps rather than prison, while smugglers will still be severely punished.

Courts will also have wider discretion in making a distinction between users and smugglers based on circumstances other than the quantity of drugs found during the arrest.

Despite the public outcry and concerns that the country will be flooded with drug addicts and drug-related crimes under the new policy, the proposed measures show many promising prospects from an economic point of view based on findings from economic research on drugs.

Many drug-related problems are not caused by the consumption of drugs per se, but by the prohibition of drugs. The prohibition of drugs reduces both the demand and supply in a free market, thereby reducing the quantity of drugs consumed in the market and increasing their market price.

This results in a drastic difference between a drug’s price and its production cost. For example, the price of an amphetamine pill is about Bt300 – 600 times its cost of Bt0.50.

It is this lofty price that explains why many users commit property crimes to finance their drug consumption. A softened policy on drugs will reduce rather than increase drug-related crimes.

Another ubiquitous problem of drugs is overdosing.

Although it is unarguable that most, if not all, illicit drugs are dangerous, the danger of these drugs may partly be attributed to the fact that they are prohibited. As illicit drugs are traded in the black market, regulation of their quality is impossible.

Drug users are almost always uncertain about the purity of each batch of drug obtained, which partly causes the problem of overdoses.

The imprisonment of drug convicts often aggravates drug problems.

From the perspective of the economics of crime, incarcerated drug offenders often commit crimes soon after they are released. There are many reasons for this.

Ex-convicts usually face greater difficulty in finding an honest job and are offered a lower wage because of their prison record. This prejudice discourages them from seeking a job in the formal market.

On the other hand, new inmates often have an opportunity to broaden their network with other criminals while they are in prison, which encourages them to remain involved in crime.

Alternative forms of punishment such as fines have been proved more effective in preventing users from committing more crimes.

The decriminalisation of drugs has reduced drug problems in some, but not all, countries.

Portugal is well known for its successful decriminalisation policy on drugs. The consumption of drugs is still unlawful, but is treated as an administrative rather than a criminal offence.

To the surprise of the detractors of the policy, there has been a significant improvement in many drug-related problems in less than a decade after the policy was launched. Drug-related crimes were reduced, and the number of drug users was surprisingly lower.

Many users feel less stigmatised by the legal and social sanctions on the consumption of drugs and can now openly seek help in rehabilitation centres and successfully quit drugs.

However, one such success story is not a guarantee for all countries adopting a decriminalisation policy on drugs.

The Czech Republic, for example, does not seem to have experienced a significant downturn in the number of drug users after the decriminalisation policy in 1999 compared with Portugal.

As an economist with an eager interest in the subjects of law and economics and the economics of crime, I want to congratulate the Justice Ministry on its courage for taking a bold step in launching a new paradigm of policies on drugs in Thailand.

My modest recommendation would be that although meth is the most popular choice of drug in Thailand, the decriminalisation policy should perhaps be first tried on drugs that are scientifically known to be less harmful, such as cannabis or Ecstasy.

This article was contributed by Tongyai Iyavarakul from the National Institute of Development Administration.