The year is off to an interesting start for the future of Thailand’s drug policy. Last January 5, officials gathered for a two-day conference titled “Drug Education: Social Skills for Harm Reduction” to discuss lessons learned from their drug policies and how to move forward.

Current and former government officials spoke about the failures of their old policies. Discussions ranged from the heavy burden and enforcement-focused approach placed on the penal system, to the economic losses of investing in ineffective interventions, to the social costs of allowing misguided moralism to color how they responded to drug use.

It was striking to me how openly the officials admitted to their government’s past shortcomings. It was even more striking how passionately the speakers urged everyone to move beyond just discussing as they’ve been and start putting words into action.

The conference was headlined by Dr. Carl Hart, a neuropsychopharmacologist from Columbia University. He presented findings from his extensive research on the biological and social impact of methamphetamine. This comes as especially relevant given the increasing use of amphetamine-type stimulants in Southeast Asia. He emphasized the need to shift to a public health policy model, and what that actually means: keeping people safe in ways that are based on evidence and human rights.

 

Coming from the Philippines, which has been flooding international news with our government’s draconian crackdown on people involved with drugs, I couldn’t help but notice the huge difference in the discussion.

Sure, during the conference, there were a lot of differences of opinion. Some didn’t believe a public health approach meant being less punitive. Some were worried about how the public would take being more compassionate toward people who use drugs. But the fact that these debates were openly held in a forum among government officials is still a huge step toward progress.

As an example, on the second day, Pascal Tanguay of Law Enforcement And HIV Network & Ozone Foundation and Khun Noy of the Thai Drug User Network and Ozone Foundation presented their preliminary findings on the possibility of implementing components of decriminalization drug policy models such as those of Portugal and the Netherlands in Thailand.

That was a discussion that the Philippine government hasn’t even broached.

Near the end of the conference, Dr. Hart left everyone with this thought: “You can't be paralyzed by making a mistake. We already made a mistake with our current drug laws, and many people are suffering. It's not a crime to make a mistake, but it would be a crime not to correct that mistake.”

I’ve heard comments before about how the Philippines is just following the same course Thailand took more than a decade ago: extrajudicial killings, human rights abuses, impunity, worsening prison conditions, and insufficient public health interventions.

Hopefully, it doesn’t take the Philippines a decade to have the same conversations that were had in the conference and to start changing course. 

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