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VI. Conclusion

At three baht [U.S.$0.07] per methamphetamine tablet seized, a government official can become a millionaire by upholding the law, instead of begging for kickbacks from the scum of society.
—Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, February 2003

We believe we are part of the solution, not the problem . . . . Yet as long as we are seen as criminals in the eyes of our political leaders and communities, we can never be healthy.
—Paisan Suwannawong, thirty-eight, founding member of the Thai Drug Users’ Network

Throughout the war on drugs, the Thai government capitalized on widespread public disdain for drug users in order to mobilize public support for its anti-drug policies.  Prime Minister Thaksin repeatedly referred to narcotic drugs as “a menace to society” and “a danger to our nation.”  He referred to people involved in drug trafficking as “the scum of society,” “threats to security” and “wicked people.”  While he sometimes referred to drug users (as opposed to drug dealers) as “patients” in need of drug treatment, his policies had the effect of endorsing extreme violence against anyone associated with the drug trade.  Public opinion polls throughout the war on drugs showed widespread support for the government’s violent anti-drug tactics.

The Thai government’s anti-drug propaganda built on—and fueled—the popular myth that drug users are criminals in need of punishment, not persons in need of humane treatment.  “Most people [in Thailand] don’t think of the user as a sick person,” Petch D., a twenty-eight-year-old injection drug user, explained to Human Rights Watch.  “They think of us as ‘junkies.’  Every time a crime is committed, it’s always blamed on the drug user.”127  In numerous interviews, drug users shared experiences of stigma and discrimination that closely reflected the Thai government’s anti-drug rhetoric.  “If I went to [a government office] to get an ID card or change my address, the officials would show signs of disgust, or try not to look at me because of the way I look,” said Par L, twenty-six.128  Jit P., twenty-seven, said that while she was in labor in public hospital, all the doctor could do was insult her.  “I was in a lot of pain, and the doctor said, ‘Oh, you junkie, you need something for your pain?  What do you need, ya baa?’  I said I didn’t use ya baa, and he said, ‘Oh, so you need heroin?  I’ll get you some heroin, you junkie.’”129

Drug addiction is not a failure of character or will, nor is it in itself a crime.  Through its war on drugs, however, the Thai government effectively transformed the disease of addiction into a death sentence.  Police arrested and jailed individuals based solely on evidence of prior drug use or syringe marks on their arms.  Local officials placed thousands on blacklists without any evidence of drug activity and forced them to report to the police.  Drug users who turned themselves in to police found themselves shot and killed on their way out of the police station.  A fear of arrest or murder drove drug users into remote hiding places, where they risked fatal overdose and HIV infection from the sharing of blood-contaminated syringes.

In an era of HIV/AIDS, official abuse and stigmatization of drug users can have especially lethal consequences.  There is ample evidence to show that drug crackdowns, by driving drug users into hiding and away from health services, can increase the risk of HIV infection.130  Drug users represent one of the most important sources of HIV infection in Thailand, a country that is home to some 700,000 people living with HIV/AIDS.  Despite its stated commitment to HIV prevention, however, the Thai government deliberately created a climate of fear that drove drug users underground and away from what few drug treatment and HIV prevention services existed.

Thailand has been richly congratulated for its bold public health policy early in the AIDS epidemic.  AIDS experts have praised the Thai government for acknowledging the existence of illegal prostitution but pragmatically attempting to promote condom use among sex workers and their clients.  Unfortunately, the Thai government has not seen fit to apply these lessons to drug users.  Whether out of fear of appearing “soft on drugs” or simply because of the deep stigma in which drug users live, Thailand has rejected public health-oriented approaches to drug addiction in favor of brute force and systematic violations of human rights.

[127] Human Rights Watch interview, Samut Prakhan, May 7, 2004.

[128] Human Rights Watch interview, Samut Prakhan, May 7, 2004.

[129] Human Rights Watch interview, Samut Prakhan, May 7, 2004.

[130] See, e.g., S. Burris, K.M. Blankenship, M. Donoghoe, S. Sherman, J.S. Vernick, P. Case, Z. Lazzarini, and S. Koester, “Addressing the ‘Risk Environment’ for Injection Drug Users: The Mysterious Case of the Missing Cop,” The Millbank Quarterly, vol. 82, no. 1 (2004), pp. 131-35; T. Rhodes, A. Sarang, A. Bobrik, E. Bobkov and L. Platt, “HIV transmission and HIV prevention associated with injecting drug use in the Russian Federation,” International Journal of Drug Policy, vol. 15, no. 1 (February 2004); E. Wood, P.M. Spittal, W. Small, T. Kerr, K. Li, R.S. Hogg, M.W. Tyndall, J.S.G. Montaner and M.T. Schechter, “Displacement of Canada’s largest public illicit drug market in response to a police crackdown,” Canadian Medical Association Journal, vol. 170, no. 10 (May 11, 2004), pp. 1551-1556.

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