Civil society activism & drug policy reform fuelled by the Support. Don’t Punish campaign in Thailand

Sustained civil society advocacy through the Support. Don’t Punish. campaign has contributed to maintaining dialogue on harm reduction and drug policy reform with policymakers.

In 2013 as part of the Support. Don’t Punish. global campaign, members of the Thai Civil Society Coalition for Harm Reduction (12D Network), human rights activists and people who use drugs attended a street rally to raise awareness of the harms caused by the ‘war on drugs’. They gathered at the front of Government House, holding banners demanding drug policy reforms to end the criminalisation of drug use, violations against drug users and compulsory treatment.

SDP Thailand

The 12D Network had prepared a letter to the Prime Minister, Ms. Yingluck Shinawatra, demanding that the government  reform its drug control policies. On her behalf, the Secretary-General of the Office of Narcotics Control Board (ONCB), Pol. Gen. Pongsapat Pongcharoen, met with the 12D Network at the rally and officially received the letter (as pictured above). The Secretary-General addressed rally participants and committed to meeting with the participants again next week for a more detailed dialogue about the letter, which comprised 5 requests of the government:

  1. support and implement harm reduction and evidence-based policies on drug use
  2. provide more resources to implement prevention and healthcare and harm reduction services for people who use drugs
  3. review and reform laws and policies to end the criminalisation of people who use drugs
  4. support voluntary rehabilitation and treatment methods that are based on evidence and human rights, and end the imprisonment of people who use drugs, and
  5. provide more opportunities for Thai civil society organisations and drug user networks to participate in policy making processes.

The day before the rally, the Thailand Law Reform Council Rights Protection Sub-Committee organized a public forum called ‘10 years of Harm Reduction Policies in Thailand: Rights Promotion or Violation’. The purpose of the forum was to review Thailand’s drug control policies in the last 10 years since the Prime Minister at the time, Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra, declared a war on drugs in Thailand.  A range of speakers from government, health services and civil society spoke about the need to address the stigmatization and discrimination against people who use drugs, particularly amongst healthcare providers, and to incorporate evidence-based approaches in the rehabilitation system. Mr. Veeraphan Ngammee of the 12D Network highlighted the fact that the number of new HIV infections in Thailand has been increasing since 2003 from 10,000 to 1.2 million, indicates that the government’s drug control policy has been ineffective. Concrete suggestions for improving Thailand’s drug policies included reforming drug laws, raising public awareness about drug use and dependence, ending compulsory treatment and introducing voluntary options, and ensuring better balance between law enforcement and health in developing and implementing policy measures.

These activities, and the dialogue that took place the following week between the ONCB and civil society advocates, were important steps forward for the reform of drug control policy in Thailand. The ONCB subsequently acknowledged harm reduction, for the first time, as part of its national drug strategy in 2014. Although the military coup in May 2014 made public assembly of more than five people illegal, advocates continued to convene Support. Don’t Punish. campaign activities each year albeit in more private settings including meetings with the Ministry of Health to request (successfully) the inclusion of MMT in Thailand’s universal health coverage in 2014, the Minister of Justice in 2015, and a film screening in 2016.

Sustained civil society advocacy through the Support. Don’t Punish. campaign has contributed to maintaining dialogue on harm reduction and drug policy reform with policymakers, and to recent amendments of the drug law to reduce penalties as well as reforms emphasising voluntary access to drug treatment.