Methamphetamine use in Thailand jumped 30% last year, new research shows, amid a production boom of the illicit drug in next door Myanmar flooding the region with ever-cheaper supplies.
To cope with the surge, Thailand’s Public Health Ministry is pushing for tough new rules that could see anyone caught with more than one meth tablet prosecuted as a drug dealer, a move academics and social workers say would not help and could make the problem worse.
According to a nationwide survey on drug use led by Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, an estimated 57,900 Thais between the ages of 18 and 65 used meth at least once last year, up from some 44,500 the year before.
Rasmon Kalayasiri, who heads the university’s Center for Addiction Studies, said the numbers are likely an undercount, as many may be wary of admitting to using an illegal drug, even though the study keeps them anonymous. Previous surveys by the government’s Office of the Narcotics Control Board, which sample more people, have put the number of meth users in the hundreds of thousands in recent years.
Rasmon said the results of the ONCB’s next survey, typically carried out every three to five years, would offer a more definitive picture of the latest trends. But the university’s own study, she added, still suggests that meth use may be rising.
Thailand’s Raks Thai Foundation, which provides harm reduction and needle exchange services for drug users across the country, has noticed the trend too.
Nantapol Chuenchooklin, a technical officer for the group, said Raks Thai has anecdotally noticed more meth use over the past two years, just as street prices for the drug have crashed.
“It increased around 30% to 40% since the drug prices decreased a lot,” he said.
A tablet of powdered meth, commonly known as yaba, which means “crazy medicine” in Thai, now goes for as little as 86 cents or even 58 cents in the north of Thailand near the border with Myanmar, Nantapol said. That is as little as one-fourth of what it cost a few years ago.
He said prices for more potent and addictive crystal meth have plunged over the same period too, from $52 to $58 before to anywhere from $14 to $29 now, depending on the purity.
Rasmon said that has made the drug easier to get.
“People get access to it very easily because the cost [is] very low, so the availability ... is higher,” she said.
Apinun Aramrattana, who runs the Northern Substance Abuse Center for Thailand’s Chiang Mai University, said the social and health care workers his team works with are also reporting yaba prices in some parts of the country below $1. “Some said it’s easier than find[ing] the cigarette,” he added, making it easier in turn for those experimenting with lighter drugs like cannabis or kratom, another plant with sedative effects, to move on to meth.
The plummeting prices coincide with rising seizures of meth across East and Southeast Asia, most of it made in Myanmar — where a 2021 coup has pitched much of the country into chaos — and flowing into or through Thailand. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, authorities across the region seized a record 171.5 tons of meth in 2021. Judging from the falling street prices in Thailand and elsewhere, the UNODC believes that points to a surge in production by the drug gangs in Myanmar.
By the numbers
Thailand has reacted by stepping up patrols along its northern borders with both Myanmar and Laos, which the drug gangs are also using to move their meth abroad.
To close what he described as a loophole in Thailand’s drug laws being exploited by local dealers, Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul also announced plans late last month to amend government regulations so that anyone caught with more than one yaba tablet could be considered a distributor.
Currently, anyone caught with 15 tables or less can be treated as a user and avoid jail by consenting to treatment. Dealers, though, can face prison sentences of up to 15 years, 20 if found selling to minors.
Anutin’s hardline push follows Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s call for a crackdown on narcotics after a former police officer discharged for using drugs went on a killing spree last October and killed 37 people, including 24 children. Though the former officer, who took his own life, was suspected of harboring a meth addiction, an autopsy found no drugs in his system.
Earlier this month, Anutin told reporters the tougher rules were still needed “to address social problems in a definitive and effective way and to curb the spread of yaba pills.”
The change needs cabinet approval before taking effect, though, and as of Wednesday a government spokesperson told VOA the Public Health Ministry had yet to submit its proposal.
The big picture
A number of local groups are urging the government to reject the idea.
More than 40 of them signed on to an open letter insisting it would undermine the intent of a package of reforms to Thailand’s drug laws passed by the National Assembly in 2021 emphasizing prevention and treatment over punishment for those caught with small amounts.
“It seems to be against the intent of the law that is pushing for ... treatment and rehabilitation, which is part of what we see as an intention to not channel people into prison but channel people into health intervention,” said Raks Thai’s executive director, Promboon Panitchpakdi.
He said he worries that prosecuting drug users as dealers will also scare more users away from exposing themselves to seek help voluntarily, making the problem even harder to address.
Critics of the health minister’s plan also say it will add needlessly to the burden of Thailand’s already overcrowded prisons. Part of the government’s rationale for the 2021 reforms was to bring prisoner numbers down.
Locking more people up just for using drugs, Rasmon added, will expose more non-violent drug offenders to hardened criminals inside prisons, where they are more likely to fall into existing criminal networks.
Lowering the threshold for arrests would also give police, currently reeling from a string of bribery scandals, more scope to extort users in exchange for letting them go, said Verapun Ngamee of the Ozone Foundation, another local charity that helps drug users.
Apinun, too, said Anutin’s plan risks flooding the courts with small scale drug cases while doing little if anything to stop the actual flow of drugs as dealers and their customers adapt to the new rules, as they usually do.
“It will be difficult to see [how] they will get a positive outcome in the big picture from that proposal,” he said.