Monday, 6 February 2017

Thailand Reforms the Death Penalty for Drugs

With 200,000 inmates - 70% of Thailand's prison population - locked up on mostly low level drug offences, ASEAN authorities are acknowledging how the War on Drugs has failed.  Is Thailand, in 2017, deciding to move forward with a new approach?
Drug Law Reform in Thailand 

On Nov 24th 2016 the NLA approved 'edits' to the 2522 (1979) Narcotics Act by 160 votes to 0.  These reforms were promulgated in the Royal Gazette on Jan 15th 2017.

Appearing subtle at first, the edits reformed the mandatory death penalty for drugs - and a far-reaching change in the wording of the code means that drug users will no longer be automatically prosecuted as drug dealers.

Death Penalty in Thailand

'In 2005, the Thai government reported to the U.N. Human Rights Committee that there was no mandatory death penalty.  In practice, however, Thai lawyers report that judges often impose the death penalty without any consideration of mitigating circumstances when it comes to certain - particularly drug-related - offences.' 
Deathpenaltyworldwide.org 2015

Narcotics Act Reforms announced in January 2017 mean Thailand's ultra-hardline stance of capital punishment for drug dealers may be about to change.

Judges are now being given room to assess individual cases - just as the courts have individually assessed every prisoner's case for amnesty in the last two Royal Pardons (granted graciously to prisoners in Aug 2016 & Dec 2016).

Instead of rigidly sticking to the harsh letter of the law, regardless of the individual's circumstances - as female drug mules, for example - the reforms now give the courts wider sentencing guidelines to work within.

Importantly, the death penalty is no longer mandatory for traffickers or producers of Class 1 narcotic for the purpose of disposal.  The judge can now assess every case on its own merits - and can give a life sentence or the death penalty.

Thailand reforms the death penalty for drugs
 'Minister Paiboon further said that there should no longer be capital punishment, however the Bangkok Post reported the Minister saying that Thailand 
is not ready to abolish the death penalty for drug offences'  IDPC

As President of the Australian Drug Law Reform, Alex Wodak, says of this VolteFace feature on drug law reform in Thailand, the movement is important - as it will affect other countries in the region.

The death penalty didn't get abolished, but it is no longer mandatory for drugs.  Is that not a huge step towards reform?

This change in policy echoes the surprising comments by an Head Judge in Indonesia - in light the country's recent Bali 9 executions - when sentencing 3 drug dealers to life, instead of death, in Dec 2016:
Thailand has a 20 year reform plan and change won't come overnight.  But isn't this reform of the Narcotics Act - away from capital punishment for narcotics offences - worthy of scrutiny and enquiry of what else may be in the planning for the future.

Away From the Streets 
 'A refocussing of law enforcement away from the street towards the organised crime behind the business' Jeremy Douglas UNODC 

High level meetings at the UNODC with senior experts from the six countries of the Mekong MOU - Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand, and Viet Nam - have 'negotiated a new two year plan to address the regional drug situation'.  

In the 2 months since UNODC analyst Jeremy Douglas outlined this strategy above, there have been several transnational busts in the SE Asian region.  In January alone there have been major busts involving Laos, Thailand, China, Myanmar & Vietnam:

*Laos King Pin arrested in Thailand
*Heroin and Meth from Myanmar seized in Inner Mongolia
*400kg Ketamine seized in China
*'Poison Factory' chemical seizures on Vietnam border, bound for Myanmar

Flash in the pan? Or are we witnessing a real time change in drug policy enforcement - away from the streets to the transnational organised crime behind the scenes?

Paid to Deliver, No Intent to Sell

Remove the intent to sell - and drug mules start to become the lower level offenders they are - more expendable victims than kingpins.  Penalties are still harsh, but have dropped immeasurably with the Jan 2017 Narcotics Act Reforms for traffickers - from an automatic life sentence - to a far wider sentencing range of 10 yrs to life. 
President of Thailand's Supreme Court talking human rights and public health.

'Flush Them Out of the System'
 
Quantity thresholds have been revoked in the recent Narcotics Act Reforms, and people in possession of Class 1 are now deemed as 'presumed' not 'regarded' to have intent to sell.  These are potentially far reaching edits to the Narcotics Act, in practice and time.

Possession of more than 0.375g of meth (an amount which would get a caution in the West, and has seen many farang locked up in Thailand for the minimum sentence of 2 years on a guilty plea) can now be sentenced from 1yrs to 10 yrs - instead of 4 yrs to life. 

Pleading guilty in Thailand reduces the sentence by 50%, so drug users could potentially be 'flushed out of the system' within 6 months.  Sounds good in principle?


At a Kamlangjai drug policy conference - co-sponsored by drug policy think tank IDPC - in Bangkok in January 2017, leading Thai academic Prof. Sungsidh Piriyarangsan gave a lecture on Controlling Methamphetamine:

'There is no use in putting people who use drugs in prisons.  People who use drugs are not objects.  They are human beings.  We have invested a lot in drug suppression but this has resulted in heavy social and productivity costs.  

To address the drug problem, we need courage, but the right kind of courage - moral courage.  Do the people who can make change have the heart, strength, & courage to put down their own bias and do the right thing?'

Time for Change

Asia Nikkei's Agent of Change 2017, Princess Pa, has been briefing the UN about worldwide prison issues for a decade.  The King's daughter gave the world the Bangkok Rules for minimum treatment and conditions for women in jail.  HRH's Kamlangjai - 'Moral Support' or Inspire Project - recently produced this drug law reform video:


'Everything we know about addiction is wrong' - How Nixon's 40yr war on drugs has been a failure, and the need for a scientific & healthcare approach for drug users, not incarceration.  Thai/English w subtitles, explains drug reform and addiction.

'In Thailand, royally backed initiatives are highly influential among elite lawmakers and treated as sacrosanct,' reports PRI's Global Post, saying this Princess-led campaign has helped to trigger a 'furious rethink' of drug crime policy.

There were over 200,000 drug cases in prison in Thailand in July 2016.

Since then, there have been two Royal Amnesties and an implicitly far-reaching reform of the drug laws - all within the last six months.  With signals that there is more prison and policy reform to come, Thailand could be entering interesting times.

At a time when Mad Dog Duterte is making headlines for his overkill War on Drugs in the Philippines, the rest of the world, ASEAN included, may finally be admitting that Nixon got it all wrong - and now is the time for drug policy reform.

Time for change in 2017?


* Thanks to iLaw for the Thai explanations of the drug law reforms, and to Gloria Lai at IDPC for the English translation!