After the national election, will Thailand move forward in realising a human rights and harm reduction approach to drugs?

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After the national election, will Thailand move forward in realising a human rights and harm reduction approach to drugs?

1 June 2023

With the surprise success of the Move Forward Party (MFP) in Thailand’s general election in May 2023, a wave of hope and optimism appears to have swept throughout the country. Amidst the field of electoral candidates, the MFP campaigned for the most extensive policy changes, in particular, to revise penalties for the crime of insulting, defaming or threatening the monarchy (section 112 of the Criminal Code), legalising same-sex marriage, de-centralising government financial management, and limiting the scope of the military’s role in government, which had expanded since the military coup in 2014. In addition, the MFP has stated that its foreign policy priorities will include pursuing international cooperation and promoting human rights. It is positive to see the promise of improved democratic engagement, transparency and accountability of government, and equitable distribution of resources throughout the country. However, the MFP’s plans for revising Thailand’s drug policies, especially with regard to the currently legalised but unregulated cannabis market, remains uncertain.

In August 2023, the House of Representatives and Senate that make up Thailand’s parliament will vote on whether Pita Limjaroenrat will become Prime Minister. As the Senate comprises 250 people appointed by the military, their votes are crucial in deciding whether the MFP’s leader will become prime minister and form government. The MFP has formed a coalition with 7 other parties to boost their proportion of votes in the House, which on 22 May 2023, agreed on an MOU outlining 23 policy positions. The two policy positions relating specifically to drugs state that the coalition will: “[c]ombat narcotic drug problems urgently” and “[r]eclassify cannabis as a narcotic and introduce a law to regulate its use”. It is worth noting the other relevant policy positions on reforming police, armed forces and the justice system, strengthening the public health system, and restoring Thailand’s leadership role in the regional bloc for Southeast Asia known as ASEAN – although the details of each of the policy positions are yet to be outlined.

The MFP has promised that existing license-holders for cannabis production and sale will not be impacted by future cannabis policy reforms. However, it seems untenable for cannabis to be reclassified as a narcotic, its use regulated, and license-holders for growing and selling cannabis to not be impacted – all at the same time. The next two months leading up to the parliamentary vote for Prime Minister may see compromises brokered between the MFP and other political parties and senators, that will more clearly define the shape of drug policy reforms intended by the new MFP-led coalition. There is also the risk that the uncertainties, contradictions and confusion in the government’s policies on cannabis and other drugs will remain.

It is worth reflecting that over the past decade, the most progressive drug policy reforms in Asia have been pushed forward by Thailand, unexpectedly under military rule. In the year preceding the removal of cannabis from the list of narcotic drugs, which took effect on 9 June 2022, Thailand legalised kratom (a plant indigenous to Southeast Asia and commonly used in some rural communities in Thailand as a mild stimulant to treat fatigue) and adopted the Narcotics Code (which contained reduced penalties and revised sentencing rules to reduce levels of incarceration and shift towards providing a health response to drug use).

Unlike the adoption of the Narcotics Code and the legalisation of kratom, which came into being after years of consultation involving government officers, judges, civil society organisations and affected communities, cannabis legal reforms in 2021 – 2022 were largely driven by the Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul who, as leader of the Bhumjaithai party, championed cannabis legalisation during his 2019 election campaign. The latter is part of the reason that policies on cannabis remain highly politicised, and without agreement amongst parliamentarians on legal regulations to manage its uses and supply. For too long, drug policies have been dictated by politicking, misguided ideology and morality, at the expense of 100,000s of people imprisoned for low-level offences such as drug use and possession, tortured in police custody, and abused in so-called drug rehabilitation facilities (many of which are run by the police and military). The fact that such human rights violations are too easily made possible by drug laws that criminalise the use and supply of drugs must be at the forefront of considerations by Thailand’s new government in determining its approach to drug policy.

As the MFP and other incoming members of the House of Representatives work out the composition of Thailand’s new administration, it is hoped that they will be guided by their proclaimed principles of democratic governance and human rights in their decisions about drug policy, specifically:

1. On cannabis policy,

in order to develop policy positions that are grounded in principles of social justice, human rights and harm reduction and that result in improved outcomes for human security and public health.

2. On the implementation of the Narcotics Code,

  • ensure that the phrase ‘harm reduction’ mentioned in the Code is interpreted and applied according to its true definition, involving investments in eliminating stigma, discrimination, criminalisation, punishment and other abuses against intersectional communities of people who use drugs, including LGBTQ+ people who use drugs
  • assess progress in implementation to evaluate the extent to which the Code is meeting its objectives in reducing the numbers of people imprisoned for drug offences, by providing accessible alternatives to incarceration and genuinely voluntary instead of forced drug rehabilitation programmes
  • remove the role of the military and police in the provision of health and welfare services for people who use drugs, the responsibility for which should be centred upon government entities specialised in health and social care, with priority given to enabling community-led service provision, and
  • hold public consultations to invite recommendations on best practices and experiences from intersectional communities of people who use drugs, people formerly imprisoned for drug offences, people otherwise impacted by drug policies (e.g. families, friends, partners, employers of people who use drugs), as well as experienced practitioners in the field of harm reduction, health and legal service provision from around the country,

in order to develop implementing policies that ensure the objectives of the Narcotics Code are met, in accordance with processes that are transparent, accountable and participatory.