Pascal Tanguay, Program Director - Harm Reduction, Population Services International (PSI)
Clotilde Vasconi, intern, IDPC
On 28 August 2013, Thailand’s Minister of Justice announced that his office was considering decriminalizing kratom. The indigenous plant is a scheduled substance in Category 5 of the Narcotics Act, along with cannabis and psychotropic mushrooms, which warrant criminal penalties for use, possession, production, distribution and trafficking. This recent debate represents the third attempt to officially decriminalize kratom since it was scheduled under the Kratom Act of 1943.
The Ministry of Justice delegated the management of the consultation process to the Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) which is reportedly “responding positively to the proposed legalization” according to The Nation. However, since the announcement, a number of Thai officials have simply distorted facts in favor of their own opinions, tainted by their perception that all illegal drugs are “evil”. For example, one representative from the Thanyarak Institute on Drug Abuse was captured by media saying that kratom was stronger than yaba and heroin.
Meanwhile, key leaders are defending the evidence and presenting arguments grounded on facts, rather than ideology. For example, in September 2013, Dr. Viroj Sumyai, representative of the International Narcotics Control Board, declared that all published evidence to date indicates that kratom is safe and that no major negative health or social side effects had ever been recorded and verified empirically.
Moreover, kratom presents very promising medical applications. A recent meeting report prepared by Chulalongkorn University’s Department of Pharmacy underlined strong evidence that kratom has potential as a substitute in drug dependence and can help manage cravings and withdrawal symptoms. But the criminalization of kratom has had perverse effects, creating substantial barriers to research and scientific study of its pharmacological properties and medicinal applications. A Thai researcher who preferred to remain anonymous noted with dismay: “if I want to complete my research, I have to become a criminal to procure kratom leaves”.
A coalition of NGOs led by Population Services International mobilized approximately 20 civil society and drug user representatives to present a set of recommendations and evidence to the Ministry of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, prior to the consultation hosted at the Ministry of Health on 13 September. This coalition asked the government to decriminalise kratom and support more research into its pharmacology and its potential as a substitute in the treatment of dependence.
While the vast majority of stakeholders in the country agree that kratom by itself is quite innocuous, fears have been fueled by media reports that young people may be at increased health risk from drinking a cocktail of boiled kratom leaves mixes with Coca-Cola, ice cubes and cough syrup (a cocktail called”4x100”). So the whole debate about decriminalization is not about kratom but rather about the potential risk that some people may possibly mix kratom tea with a pharmaceutical products that may in turn lead to greater harm.
The Thai government has been enforcing an outdated law with the objective of reducing young people’s risks associated with the use of 4x100, but entirely missed the target. Instead of addressing the real risks (which are not associated with kratom but from the pharmaceutical products included in the cocktail) and investing in controls over pharmacy sales, the Thai government has opted to punish vulnerable groups and upset the peace within many communities by criminalizing kratom while failing to raise the key issue related to the sale of dangerous but legal substances from registered shops.
Preliminary data indicates that there are a few options being considered including the decriminalization or the full legalization of kratom; the decriminalization of personal possession and production; and the promotion of additional research on the risks and benefits of kratom.
Fortunately, we may be witnessing a landslide turn of events where one of the most conservative governments in the region on drug related issues is preparing to potentially take a bold step forward on the road to evidence-based responses.
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