Don't blame Burma for our drug ills

Source : Giorgio Mendes, Jnr, Bangkok Post (MAR 09)

Burma could disappear tomorrow and Thailand would still have a major drug problem. Thailand is wasting time and resources by not accepting responsibility for its own problem.

Ninety-nine percent of the addicts in Thailand are Thai, the internal illegal drug distribution system is 100% Thai, and the high level protection from "influential people" for the illegal drug trade is 100% Thai.

The illegal drug trade is regional, involving ethnic Chinese crime groups with entry into other ethnic Chinese family groupings involved in politics and legitimate business. The Red Wa army is a useful tool for some ethnic Chinese families who have managed the narcotics business in northern Burma and Thailand since the 1930s. The Wa army could disappear tomorrow and the drug chiefs would set up their methamphetamine factories some other place(s) in a few short weeks.

The illegal drug trade is as mobile as any other transnational organised crime. Illegal CD factories have moved around Asia ahead of the intellectual property rights regulators and police. As long as there is a demand in Thailand, drugs will come from somewhere. People are just too greedy and addiction too powerful.

As a free and open society in a region of corruption, poverty and disorganisation, Thailand will have plenty of drugs available into the foreseeable future. The only effective way to protect the population is to establish effective prevention and treatment programmes.

People must be armed with enough information to make informed decisions about illegal drugs, and be able to overcome the disease of addiction if they do become involved in substance abuse. Currently, even some physicians are confused about the destructive effects of methamphetamines.

Substance abuse is, at bottom, a public health problem. Governments like to think that they can arrest and incarcerate their way out of human weakness, but problems just grow worse because a law enforcement emphasis ignores the human dimension.

Public health/epidemiology accepts that the human brain likes drugs, and works openly with the population to overcome addiction through education and treatment. For example, Aids control would be weakened and not strengthened by a regime of arrest and incarceration. Public health problems and retroviruses all grow faster in the dark shadows of ignorance, fear and seclusion.

The answer is not to legalise drugs and make their consumption more convenient. Nevertheless, it is time for a change in policy and resource emphasis to educate and assist people to avoid substance abuse and medically treat those who do become addicted. No government can protect its people from drugs. The best that can be done is to work with the people to help them avoid the disease and treat those who do become sick. This approach addresses both illegal substances and legal drugs like alcohol and nicotine which also cause serious damage to health and/or families.

Precious police and legal resources should be targetted at organised crime. Arresting little fish just provides a market opportunity for other little fish. Little fish get out of the business when they are ostracised by their own communities.