SOutheast Asia is a group of 11 countries with 680 million inhabitants. It has been known for its strictest anti-drug policies. Thailand, which became the first nation in Asia to allow medical use of marijuana last week is a clear sign that regional leaders may be considering new approaches. Smoking weed for fun is still illegal, Thai’s health minister clarified to CNN, but he expects legal cannabis production to boost the economy. Thai prisons housed over 3,000 marijuana-related inmates were also released.
This, coupled with changes to Thailand’s Narcotics Code last December to include alternatives to imprisonment for drug offenders, are signs that the country is slowly abandoning its strict drug policies, says Gloria Lai, regional director of the International Drug Policy Consortium. Lai tells TIME that Thailand’s government has recognized the problem of locking up so many people, most of them poor, for low-level offenses.
Thailand has the largest prison population among ASEAN countries—some 285,000 people—and more than 80% of inmates are there on drug-related charges. The prison population in Thailand is overcrowded.
The legalization of marijuana
Economic benefits are also propelling Thailand’s reforms. It has an environment that is conducive for growing marijuana and it also boasts a thriving medical tourism industry. Martin Jelsma, director of the Drugs & Democracy project at the Transnational Institute (TNI) in Amsterdam, says the legalization will likely end the illegal trafficking of marijuana into Thailand, particularly from Laos.
“The hope is that Thai farmers and local companies will be able to benefit from the rapidly booming international medical cannabis market, but it will be a huge challenge to compete with established Canadian, U.S., and European companies who have already captured a large part of that global market,” he says.
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Global sales for medical cannabis were estimated at $37.4 billion in 2021, according to market intelligence firm Prohibition Partners’ Global Cannabis Report. This report estimates that by 2026, the market would be worth $120 million.
It remains to be determined whether other ASEAN nations will follow Thailand’s lead, however Lai mentions the positive developments in decriminalizing marijuana and other drugs in Myanmar and Malaysia.
A history of Asia’s war on drugs
ASEAN governments have tried to rein in the consumption and sale of drugs since the 1970s, but mainly through extreme punitive measures—despite studies providing evidence against its effectiveness. Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Malaysia have all sentenced drug offenders to death for their involvement in the sale or trafficking of marijuana.
Under Prime Minister Thaksin Shiwantra, Thailand’s government declared a war to end the illegal drug trade. The focus was on criminalizing those who were involved. According to Human Rights Watch, his campaign proved popular but resulted in more than 2200 deaths within three months. The campaign was also vulnerable to abuse as the police made arbitrary arrests of human rights activists and intimidated them.
The Philippines’ authoritarian leader Rodrigo Duterte has waged a similar bloody campaign in his country since 2016. Although official statistics show that 6,200 people were killed, rights groups estimate the death toll at 13,000. Children were also among those who died. Duterte’s approach has become so controversial that the International Criminal Court launched an investigation last year into alleged state crimes during the anti-narcotics drive.
Like in Thailand, the police engaged in the Philippines’ war on drugs have received U.S. equipment and training. And during the height of the Philippines’ war on drugs, then-U.S. President Donald Trump told Duterte to “keep up the good work—you’re doing an amazing job.”
Yet experts say that these approaches have not been able to stop or slow the region’s drug supply, with some markets even flourishing. “There’s been so much money, so much resources, and time that have been sunk into these responses that are so heavily brutally punitive, and they have caused so much harm to people and to communities, when they could have been investing all that into something that is proven by evidence to work instead,” Lai says.
Continue reading: Inside Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s War on Drugs
Next, what’s the next step?
It is not unusual for Southeast Asia to adopt a laissez-faire attitude towards drugs. Much of the region’s harsh drug policies were drawn from the colonial era, only to be tightened further from the 1970s onwards as part of an American-style war on drugs.
Given this history, Thailand’s decision to decriminalize marijuana will intensify debates on the region’s drug policy, and resistance from some narcotics hardliners in ASEAN. Singapore has long defended the “drug-free ASEAN” dream—first announced in 1998 as a goal to be reached by 2015—and has actively lobbied the U.N. against legalizing cannabis in various parts of the globe.
Yet marijuana is only one part of Southeast Asia’s drug policy. Most of Thailand’s inmates on drug-related charges are methamphetamine-related offenses, and there are few signs of a softened approach against harder drugs.
A recent U.N. report said a record-breaking 171.5 tons of methamphetamine—including over a billion in pill form—were seized in East and Southeast Asia last year. The seizures are seven times higher than those made ten years ago. Approximately three quarters of them were in Southeast Asian countries along the Mekong River.
Jelsma, of TNI, believes that there is no common Southeast Asian approach for regulating marijuana or other narcotics. But he believes that in a region “so plagued by excessively repressive drug policies, the positive influence of Thailand’s recent policy changes on the regional debate is most welcome.”
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