In a significant shift towards a more progressive approach to drug laws, Thailand is now offering increased support and harm reduction measures for its population of people who use drugs. Thanks to changes in legislation and assistance from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, those affected by drug addiction are finding more resources available to help them mitigate the harms associated with their drug use.
One individual, Prapat Sukkeaw, shares his personal journey of drug use, which began at the age of 15. He initially started with marijuana, which was unfortunately laced with heroin. Despite the risks, Sukkeaw describes the euphoric escape it provided and the temporary respite it offered from the challenges he faced as a teenager. Sukkeaw is just one of an estimated 57,000 individuals in Thailand who currently inject drugs.
Previously, Thailand was known for being a major hub for trafficking illegal narcotics like marijuana and heroin from the infamous Golden Triangle region. However, with the changing drug laws, the focus has now shifted towards supporting individuals in managing the potential harm associated with drug use.
While universal healthcare is available to all citizens in Thailand, people who use drugs often faced discrimination and stigmatization when seeking healthcare services. Fortunately, organizations like Ozone, a non-governmental organization based in Bangkok, have stepped in to reduce the health and social impacts of drug addiction and provide necessary support. Ozone offers a range of services, including needle exchanges, HIV testing, and access to Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) for HIV prevention. Moreover, they promote a non-judgmental approach and offer peer support, ensuring that everyone is treated equally, regardless of their background.
Thailand’s recent drug law changes have shifted the focus from punishment to rehabilitation for people who use drugs. Karen Peters, the Regional Drugs and Health Focal point at UNODC in Bangkok, emphasized that individuals are now given the opportunity to choose between attending a treatment facility or going to prison. This progressive approach acknowledges the need for alternatives and highlights harm reduction as a specific objective.
However, despite these advancements, the stigmatization of people who use drugs still persists. Dr. Phattarapol Jungsomjatepaisal, the director of the National Addiction Treatment & Rehabilitation Committee, acknowledges that more efforts are required to train health service providers to treat those who use drugs in a non-stigmatizing manner. Nevertheless, there is optimism that the new legislation will improve access to healthcare services, both in hospitals and community-led centers like Ozone.
While progress has been made, Thailand still grapples with high rates of HIV and hepatitis C among people who inject drugs. Approximately 8% of drug users in the country have HIV, and the rate of hepatitis C stands at a concerning 42%. Dr. Patchara Benjarattanaporn, the country director of UNAIDS, recognizes the urgency of addressing these health issues but also sees an opportunity for Thailand to become a model for other countries facing similar challenges. The newly implemented narcotic law and the community-led treatment approach offer hope for better control and support for drug users.
At Ozone, clients are already benefiting from the counseling services offered, including those for HIV prevention and hepatitis testing. Peer support remains a vital component of their approach, attracting individuals to avail of their services. It is anticipated that the new legislation will lead to reduced discrimination and pave the way for increased government support in tackling drug addiction through various healthcare facilities.
Thailand’s journey towards progressive drug laws and enhanced support for people who use drugs serves as a beacon of hope. As the country continues to address the challenges associated with substance use, it sets an example for other nations in the region to follow. By prioritizing rehabilitation and harm reduction, Thailand is on the path to building a more inclusive and compassionate society for all its citizens.
This article originally appeared in UN News.