War on drugs hitting poor women hard: study
The Thai government's notion of a war on drugs has done little to solve the actual problem and has led instead to a larger number of women being jailed for small-time trafficking and consumption, a researcher who just completed a study on women inmates said.
"The crime itself may actually be on the rise and has become more widespread. We need to ask ourselves if we're on the right path," Napaporn Havanond, who led a team of five to conduct the study, said. She has also published a book as part of the Kamlang Jai project under the auspices of HRH Princess Bajra Kitiyabha.
Napaporn, who presented the findings at a seminar organised by the Justice Ministry yesterday, said many women had been given long sentences for drugs found in their homes, when in reality the drugs may have belonged to their husband or boyfriend. She also cited cases in which women were allegedly lured into selling what they had at hand for personal consumption to undercover police.
About 85 per cent of female inmates are being held for drug-related offences and Thailand is said to have the world's highest number of women prisoners - almost 19,000 - after the United States.
The researcher said the notion of drug traffickers being enemies of the state significantly influenced judges into handing down unnecessarily severe sentences. Napaporn also questioned the existence of spies, who are often cited in court by police but have never appeared in person. She said in other democratic countries like Britain, these "spies" need to present themselves in court.
"Do these people really exist?" she asked.
Napaporn cited the case of an elderly woman given 11 years in jail for merely growing four marijuana plants in her backyard. The researcher also asked if the law puts poor people, notably women, at a disadvantage because they can't afford a competent lawyer.
Assoc Prof Sakchai Lertpanichphan, a lecturer of social welfare studies at Thammasat University, said in Switzerland, people were allowed to grow up to four marijuana plants for personal consumption. But in Thailand, he said, police choose to entrap women who may simply be users and turn them into small-time traffickers for monetary incentives.
"Up to 50 per cent of the inmates have been arrested due to this," he said, adding that drug-related cases are a reflection of socio-economic disparity. He went on to explain that poor people tend to become drug users in order to compensate for their low social and economic status.
He said the state should provide qualified lawyers to defend poor people who can't afford a lawyer themselves.
"We may need to rethink our policy [on the war on drugs]," Sakchai said, adding that those caught possessing traditional drugs such as marijuana and krathom leaves should not be given severe sentences and that the mandatory penalty needs to be adjusted.
Kitriya Achavanichkul, scholar and activist, meanwhile, urged a judicial review of cases where there is adequate reason to believe the prisoner may have been too harshly or wrongly sentenced.