In early September, I went to the 8th Thailand National Conference on Substance Abuse, held in Chiangmai and organized by Chiangmai University. Having worked in the field of harm reduction for several years, it felt like we had been exposed to a series of revelations on drug problems in Thailand because of all the evidence-based approaches and alternatives proposed at the conference. There were both government and non-government representatives at the conference, with specialists from a whole range of drug policy issues including policing and drug treatment. Interestingly, there were more government officials than non-government representatives.

8th National Conference on Subtance Abuse, Thailand

The 3-day conference hosted a range of panel discussions and symposiums with many experts speaking on drug control policy, drug treatment and harm reduction issues. Two speakers stood out to me. The first was an Associate Professor from the University of Adelaide, Robert Ali, who spoke on ‘The Challenge of Drug Treatment: Targeting the Future in ASEAN’. He pointed out that drug treatment is effective when it is offered as a community-based service, which also more humane and costs a lot less than the provision of specialist residential services or compulsory treatment. The issue of voluntary, community-based treatment is a prime one for Thailand as the government continues to insist on implementing compulsory detention as a form of treatment.

Another interesting lecture was the presentation by Dr. Viroj Sumyai, a pharmacist and member of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), who gave the INCB’s perspective on the drug situation after ASEAN forms an economic community in 2015. He referred to the changes in ASEAN, where there has seen a rapid urbanization, growth of individualism and consumerism, and rising levels of drug use and supply. In discussing possible responses to the changing drug market, he reiterated that the international drug conventions do not require the imposition of criminal penalties for drug use. He ended his presentation by mentioning a Transnational Institute report and emphasizing that the goal of a “drug-free ASEAN by 2015” is “obviously unattainable’.

Given that the Justice Minister has recently proposed the decriminalization of kratom, this was raised as another key topic for discussion at the event.

Overall, the conference appears to have been a good platform for government and civil society actors in Thailand to start exploring new approaches for addressing their long term crisis with drug markets. 

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