Methamphetamine

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New Zealand: New Anti-Meth Measures Set to Go Into Effect; Tough Luck, Flu Sufferers

Under an anti-methamphetamine package announced last week by the government of New Zealand, popular cold and flu remedies containing pseudoephedrine will soon be available only by prescription after a visit to the doctor's office. The drug is a precursor chemical for manufacturing meth. "We're asking New Zealanders to band together and to accept using alternatives to treat their colds and flus to ensure New Zealand no longer becomes one of the countries most heavily affected by P [as the Kiwis refer to meth]," said Prime Minister John Key as he announced the a series of moves to combat meth use and production. In addition to restricting access to precursor chemicals, the government will spend more money on drug treatment programs, create a 40-man police anti-meth task force, and charge police with drafting a new anti-meth law enforcement strategy by next month. The government said it would pay for the programs with asset forfeiture funds. The pseudoephedrine announcement in particular brought a mixed reaction from the public. Some, especially those who had friends or family members who had had problems with meth, were supportive. Both others were "annoyed," asking why law-abiding people had to suffer for the actions of drug users and some "voiced concern that it was a bit over the top." Unsurprisingly, New Zealand police were happy with the new meth package. In a statement greeting the package's announcement, Assistant Commissioner Viv Rickard praised the "whole of government approach" as "more effective" in the battle against meth, but, as always, the police wanted more. "Police support the control of pseudoephedrine as it would allow us to concentrate resources and work with Customs on preventing the importation of precursors from overseas," Rickard said. "Precursor control is a vital part of disrupting the supply of methamphetamine, but no one action on its own will solve the methamphetamine problem. Stronger legislation around gangs, the ability to seize assets and profits of organized criminals and enhanced treatment programs will all contribute reducing the supply of methamphetamine and making our communities safer."

Feature: Mexico and Argentina Enact Drug Decriminalization

In the last eight days, the decriminalization of drug possession has gone into effect for 150 million Latin Americans. Last Thursday, as part of a broader bill, Mexico (pop. 110 million) decriminalized the possession of small amounts of all drugs through the legislative process. Four days later, the Argentine Supreme Court declared unconstitutional that country's law criminalizing drug possession. While the Argentine case involved marijuana possession, the ruling clears the way for the government to draft a new law decriminalizing all drug possession.

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Latin America map (usaid.gov)
The shift in policies toward drug users in the two countries is a dramatic indication of the seismic shift in drug policy already well underway in Latin America. Colombia's high court declared the law against drug possession unconstitutional in 1994. Brazil has had a version of decriminalization since 2006 -- users cannot be imprisoned, but can be forced into treatment, educational programs, or community service -- and Uruguay now allows judges to determine if someone in possession of drugs intended to use them or sell and to act accordingly. Movement toward decriminalization is also underway in Ecuador.

That reformist zeitgeist is perhaps best encapsulated in the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, led by former presidents Cesar Gaviria of Colombia, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, and Enrique Cardoso of Brazil. In its report earlier this year, Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm Shift, the commission called for decriminalization of drug use, especially marijuana, and treating drug use as a public health -- not a law enforcement -- issue. A similar commission got underway in Brazil last week.

"Decriminalization permits a distinction between users and drug traffickers," said John Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America. "This allows governments to focus their efforts in reducing the terrible harms caused by the big criminal networks and the violence related to the illicit traffic, instead of repressing users and small-scale dealers."

"What's happened in Mexico and now Argentina is very consistent with the broader trend in Europe and Latin America in terms of decriminalizing small amounts of drugs and promoting alternatives to incarceration and a public health approach for people struggling with drug addiction," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "The decision in Argentina reminds me of similar rulings in Colombia more than a decade ago and in Germany before that, and, more generally, what's been going on in the Netherlands, Portugal, and Switzerland. In some cases, there is a legal or constitutional notion about personal sovereignty or autonomy, but there is also a recognition of the failures of the drug war approach vis a vis low-level offenders. There is a kind of human rights element that you see popping up in both contexts," Nadelmann said.

But the devil is in the details. Mexico's decriminalization, for example, comes as part of a broader law aimed at "narcomenudeo," or small-scale drug dealing. In addition to decriminalizing drug possession, the law for the first time allows state and local authorities to arrest and prosecute drug offenders. Previously, such powers had been the sole province of federal authorities. The new law also allows police to make undercover drug buys, a power they did not previously possess. (To read the full text of the law in Spanish, go to page 83 of the Official Daily.)

Under the Mexican law, the amounts of various drugs decriminalized are as follows:

  • opium -- 2 grams
  • cocaine -- 1/2 gram
  • heroin -- 1/10 gram
  • marijuana -- 5 grams
  • LSD -- 150 micrograms
  • methamphetamine -- 1/5 gram
  • ecstasy -- 1/5 gram

For Mexican drug reformers, the law is definitely a mixed bag. The Collective for an Integral Drug Policy, a Mexico City-based reform think-tank, felt compelled to note that while "the law represents certain advances... it could have very negative consequences for the country" because the public health and human rights perspectives are not implicated strongly enough in it.

While the collective applauded the law's distinctions between consumer, addict, and criminal; its rejection of forced drug treatment, its lip service to harm reduction, and its recognition of the traditional, ritual use of some substances, it challenged other aspects of the law. "It focuses on intensifying a military and police strategy that has proven to be a failure," the collective said, alluding to the more than 12,000 people killed in prohibition-related violence since President Felipe Calderon unleashed the military against the cartels in December 2006.

"The law will criminalize a vast group of people who make a living off the small-time dealing of drugs, but who in reality do not consciously form part of organized crime," but who are instead merely trying to make a living, the collective argued. "Imprisoning them will not diminish the supply of drugs on the street, nor will it improve public security, yet it will justify the war on drugs, since the government will be able to boast of the number of people incarcerated with this policy."

"Mexican decriminalization will have no impact whatsoever on the broader issues of drug trafficking and violence," agreed Nadelmann. "From the legal and institutional perspective, this is very, very significant, but in terms of actual impact on the ground in Mexico, that remains to be seen."

The collective also criticized the law's provision allowing police to make drug buys to nab small-time dealers and warned that the small quantities of drugs decriminalized "are not realistic" and will as a consequence lead to "a significant increase in corruption and extortion of consumers by police forces."

University of Texas-El Paso anthropologist Howard Campbell, who has studied the street drug scene across the river in Ciudad Juarez, was more cynical. "It was a good move by the government to make that distinction between users and traffickers, but I'm not sure what the effects of the law will be," he said. "All over Mexico, cops prey on junkies, and one effect of this might be to give low-down junkies a bit of a break from the cops. On the other hand, street-level drug dealing is often controlled by the cops... but if the cops are corrupt and in control, it doesn't really matter what the law says."

Campbell also doubted the new law would have much effect in reducing the prohibition-related violence. "I don't think it will have much initial impact, but still, the overarching importance of this law is symbolic. It shows that governments can revamp their policies, not just keep on working with failed ones," he said.

In Argentina, the situation is less dire and the reform is less ambiguous. On Tuesday, the Argentine Supreme Court, ratifying a series of lower court decisions in recent years, declared that the section of the country's drug law that criminalizes drug possession is unconstitutional. While the ruling referred only to marijuana possession, the portion of the law it threw out makes no distinction among drugs.

The decision came in the Arriola case, in which a group of young men from the provincial city of Rosario were each caught with small amounts of marijuana, arrested, and convicted. Under Argentina's 1989 drug law, they faced up to two years in prison.

But imprisoning people absent harm to others violated constitutional protections, a unanimous court held. "Each individual adult is responsible for making decisions freely about their desired lifestyle without state interference," their ruling said. "Private conduct is allowed unless it constitutes a real danger or causes damage to property or the rights of others. The state cannot establish morality."

"It is significant that the ruling was unanimous," said Martin Jelsma, coordinator of the Drugs and Democracy program at the Transnational Institute, which has worked closely with Latin American activists and politicians on drug reform issues. "It confirms the paradigm shift visible throughout the continent, which recognizes that drug use should be treated as a public health matter instead of, as in the past, when all involved, including users, were seen as criminals."

That paradigm shift has also occurred within the current Argentine government of President Cristina Kirchner, which favors a public health approach to drug use. The government has been waiting on this decision before moving forward with a bill that would decriminalize possession of small quantities of all drugs.

"The declaration of the unconstitutionality of the application of the drug law for marijuana possession is a great advance since it eliminates the repressive arm from a problem that should be confronted with public health policies," said Intercambios, an Argentine harm reduction organization. "Whatever retreat in the application of the criminal law in relation to drug users is positive; not only to stop criminalizing and stigmatizing users, but to permit the advance of educational, social, and health responses that are appropriate for this phenomenon."

Some Argentine harm reductionists warned that while the ruling was of transcendent importance, its real impact would be measured by its effect on the policies of the state. "In the vertical sense, it should oblige all the judges in the country to take heed of this declaration of the unconstitutionality of punishing drug possession for personal use," said Silvia Inchaurraga of the Argentine Harm Reduction Association (ARDA). "In the horizontal sense, it should force all the agencies of the state involved in drug policy to redefine their involvement to guarantee that they do not fail to comply with international human rights treaties subscribed to by the country," she added.

For the Argentine section of the global cannabis nation, it was a happy day. "Wow! This feels like honest good vibrations from the Supreme Court and the government," said Argentine marijuana activist Mike Bifari. "They really do have this new policy of generally being more tolerant and talking about human rights in the drug issue nationally and internationally, instead of that tired old war on drugs."

The Supreme Court decision will pave the way to full decriminalization, he said. "Although this was a marijuana case, the current law is about all types of drugs," said Bifari. "Now we have to wait for the government's scientific committee to come up with a draft of a new drug law, and that will be the government's bill in the congress. We think there are going to be lot of media debates and lots of discussion, and what we will try to do is to occupy all the different cultural spaces and try to advance on issues such as access and medical marijuana."

And so the wheel turns, and the United States and its hard-line drug policies are increasingly isolated in the hemisphere. As anthropologist Campbell noted, "This is happening all over Latin America. You'd think we might be able to do it here, too."

Latin America: Mexican Decriminalization Bill Now Law of the Land

A bill that decriminalizes the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use in Mexico is now the law of the land, although it will not go into effect for one year to give states time to adjust their laws. It was published Thursday in the Official Daily of the Federation, the Mexican equivalent of the Federal Register. (To read the complete text of the bill in Spanish, go to page 83 of the Official Daily.

According to the new law, the amounts of various drugs decriminalized for personal use are:

  • opium -- 2 grams
  • cocaine -- 1/2 gram
  • heroin -- 1/10 gram
  • marijuana -- 5 grams
  • LSD -- 150 micrograms
  • methamphetamine -- 1/5 gram
  • ecstasy -- 1/5 gram

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''Global Marijuana Day'' demonstration in Mexico City, May 2008
The decriminalization measure is part of a broader bill aimed at reducing "narcomenudeo," or retail drug sales. The bill would allow states and localities to prosecute small-time drug dealing offenses, a power that currently resides only with the federal government. It also allows police to make drug buys to build cases, a break with precedent in Mexico.

Whether the overall bill is a step forward or a step back is open to debate. Read our earlier discussion of the bill here.

Learning from Crystal Methamphetamine

The Community Response to Crystal Methamphetamine Study and the Chemical Dependency Institute (Beth Israel Medical Center) are pleased to announce the presentation of findings from a recently completed qualitative study examining Crystal Methamphetamine in Gay communities in NYC. Please reserve this date to learn more about this study and the important findings for men in our community and service providers who work with them. This is NOT quantitative epidemiology; the forum will focus on data from a qualitative study of community response to crystal meth in NYC. We will examine dynamics of community action in response to meth, from grassroots levels to service providers and politicians, and talk about the social, historical and material contexts for crystal meth use among gay men/MSM in NYC. For additional information contact Laurens Van Sluytman at 212-256-2546, or via e-mail: lvansluy@chpnet.org.
Date: 
Tue, 06/09/2009 - 2:00pm - 5:00pm
Location: 
208 West 13th Street, Room 410
New York, NY
United States

Federal Budget: House 2009 Appropriations Bill Contains Even More Drug War Funding Increases... And a Slight Cut to Plan Colombia

Just two weeks ago, the Congress passed the $787 billion economic stimulus bill, which included $3.8 billion for law enforcement, much of it destined for continuing the war on drugs. On Monday, the free-spending House Democratic leadership was at it again as it unveiled its fiscal year 2009 omnibus appropriations bill, and again there is more money for drug law enforcement.

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coca eradication in Plan Colombia (courtesy SF Bay Area IndyMedia)
To the undoubted dismay of drug reformers, taxpayer groups, fiscal conservatives, and good governance advocates alike, the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant program looks to once again get increased funding. The appropriations bill contemplates $2 billion for the Office of Justice Programs, a 16% increase over 2008's $1.679 appropriation. The biggest chunk of that will go to the Byrne JAG grant program.

While the Byrne JAG grants can be used to fund drug courts and drug prevention programs, they are most commonly used to fund multi-jurisdictional anti-drug law enforcement task forces, such as the ones that ran amok in Texas in recent years. Arguing that the spending had not proven effective, the Bush administration attempted to substantially reduce or even zero out Byrne JAG grant funding, but faced constant opposition from "tough on crime" representatives from both parties.

Besides funding the Byrne JAG grant program at higher levels than last year, the appropriations bill includes $550 million for the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program, which got $1 billion just two weeks ago in the economic stimulus bill. It also includes another $3.2 billion for state and local law enforcement crime prevention grants -- another area where the Bush administration sought and got funding reductions. This grant program was cut from $4.7 billion to $2.7 billion during the Bush years.

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anti-Plan Colombia poster (courtesy Colombia IndyMedia)
The Drug Enforcement Administration is also a winner, garnering an $84 million increase over 2008 and pushing its annual budget to $1.9 billion. That includes $73 million earmarked "to fight meth including targeted areas in 'hot spots.'"

And so is the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The congressional response to a federal prison system straining under the results of harsh federal drug law enforcement and sentencing laws is to simply increase the prison budget. Under the bill, the BOP budget would jump nearly 10% to $6.2 billion.

There are also drug war spending increases -- and one notable decrease -- in the State Department and foreign operations section of the appropriations bill. The Merida Initiative to assist the Mexican state in its battle against violent drug trafficking organizations would get $405 million. That's on top of a $465 million emergency appropriation already passed. And the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement -- known colloquially as "drugs and thugs" -- is in line for a whopping 35% budget increase, from $557 million in 2008 to $875 million this year.

The one drug war loser in the appropriations bill is Plan Colombia, known as the Andean Counterdrug Program under the Bush administration. With the US having poured more than $5 billion into the program since 1999, only to see coca production increase, House Democrats are moving to shave just a few dollars from that failed program. Instead of the $405 million the Bush administration requested for 2009 or the $320 million that Plan Colombia received in 2008, the new appropriations bill has only $315 million for the Andean drug war.

Methamphetamine: Bill Equating Meth Use with Child Abuse Passes New Mexico House

The New Mexico House voted 67-3 Saturday to approve a bill that makes using or possessing methamphetamine in a home where minors are present child abuse. At least three other states -- Iowa, Michigan, and South Dakota -- have already approved similar laws.

The bill, HB 117, amends the state's child abuse and neglect statute to include the following language: "Evidence that demonstrates a child has been knowingly, intentionally or negligently exposed to the use of methamphetamine shall be deemed prima facie evidence of abuse of the child."

While "meth equals child abuse" laws may be well-intentioned, critics say they do more harm than good. When Drug War Chronicle covered this issue in 2006, Richard Wexler of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform called them cruel and "ineffective."

"If the idea is to help children, these kinds of laws are extremely ineffective," said Wexler, head of the coalition and a harsh critic of the nation's child protection services. "If the idea is to drive women underground and leave the children far worse off, it's extremely effective. These laws hurt the children they are allegedly intended to help. Listen, you can't be a meth addict and be a good parent, but further criminalizing them doesn't help anything. The key is to offer treatment. If you simply confiscate the kids, then they wind up in America's dreadful foster care system, bounced from home to home, unable to form lasting bonds with anyone," he told the Chronicle.

National Advocates for Pregnant Women generally concentrates on the distinct -- but closely related -- issue of the plight of drug using expectant mothers (12 states and DC charge drug using mothers as child abusers, and 12 more have specific reporting procedures for infants who test positive at birth), but the group is also concerned about the meth as child abuse laws.

"This completely misses the boat if we're talking about the public health angle," said Wyndi Anderson, national educator for the group. "We try really hard to get a lot of women access to a whole range of public health services. They need addiction treatment. Automatically labeling them child abusers doesn't help them at all, it only helps get them into prison and their children into foster care," she told the Chronicle.

"These laws are an exercise in showboating," said Wexler. "The legislators want to look like they're cracking down on drugs and child abuse, but since it is already child abuse to commit an act that actually harms a child, these laws are redundant. All they do is frighten people away and take away one way to reach out to addicted parents and get the help that will help -- not hurt -- their children."

"When you equate meth use with child abuse, you create the possibility of a witch hunt," Anderson warned. "We want to keep communities healthy and families intact, and these kinds of laws will just bust up both. If you believe in family values, I don't see how you could be for something like this."

The bill now heads for the New Mexico Senate.

Methamphetamine: Grassley, Feinstein Reintroduce Candy-Flavored Meth Bill, Despite Little Evidence the Stuff Even Exists

A year and a half ago, word started spreading from isolated law enforcement sources that candy-flavored methamphetamine was showing up in drug busts. Seeing a new, candy-flavored drug bogeyman just around the corner and an opportunity to look tough on drugs, Sens. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Charles Grassley (R-IA) quickly responded with the Saving Kids From Dangerous Drugs Act, which would increase the penalties for dealers peddling flavored meth to any buyers to match those for dealers who actually sold drugs to kids.

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strawberry-flavored meth, or just colored meth?
That bill went nowhere in 2007 or last year, and the candy-flavored meth story was quickly debunked by, among others, Join Together's Bob Curley, who penned Meth Ado About Nothing? in June 2007, and the urban myth web site Snopes.com, which addressed the issue at about the same time. Both articles suggested authorities may have mistakenly attributed flavors to meth that was merely colored.

Despite horrified warnings from different law enforcement sources and hysterical reporting by various local media outlets around the country, nobody ever seemed able to actually come up with any candy-flavored meth, let alone any nefarious schemes to entice kids with sweetened drugs in an effort to crack the pre-pubescent meth market. Still, the threat of candy-flavored meth continues to surface periodically, although not for the past few months. Most recently, the (false) alarm was sounded in Florida in February and Southwest Virginia in March.

The lack of evidence for any real problem with candy-flavored meth hasn't stopped the drug-fightin' senatorial duo, though. In a Monday press release, Grassley announced that he and Feinstein were reintroducing the Saving Kids From Dangerous Drugs Act. It was as if the debunking of the myth had never occurred.

"The candy-flavored meth bill comes after reports detailing the growing trend of candy-flavored meth," the press release breathlessly, if belatedly, warned. "According to law enforcement officers and drug treatment officials, methamphetamine and other illegal drugs are being colored, packaged and flavored in ways designed to attract children and minors."

"It's disturbing that drug dealers are trying to lure teens and young kids by flavoring drugs to taste like candy. This latest craze needs to be dealt with before it's too late," Grassley said. "We've also got to make sure our law enforcement has the tools they need to adequately enforce the laws we pass. The legislation that Senator Feinstein and I have introduced should make drug dealers think twice about selling candy flavored drugs to our kids and help law enforcement keep the Combat Meth Act effective."

Under federal law, anyone who sells drugs to someone under 21 faces a mandatory minimum one-year prison sentence and a sentencing enhancement that doubles the sentence, or triples it for a repeat offense. Under the Feinstein-Grassley bill, the same penalty would also apply to anyone who "manufactures, creates, distributes, or possesses with intent to distribute a controlled substance that is flavored, colored, packaged or otherwise altered in a way that is designed to make it more appealing to a person under 21 years of age, or who attempts or conspires to do so."

In addition to addressing a problem that doesn't exist, the bill is written so vaguely as to apply to all kinds of illicit drug packaging. Would an ecstasy tablet stamped with a cartoon image qualify? How about heroin packaged under cute names? How about marijuana in a baggie with a smiley face sticker? For answers, you will have to consult your local federal prosecutor. Or, if there is any sense in Washington, this bill will meet the same ignominious fate as its predecessor and be assigned to the dustbin of history.

High School Seniors Are Using Lots of LSD This Year

Jacob Sullum pokes numerous holes in the drug czar’s recent claims of dramatic drug war progress. This in particular jumped out at me:

…if Walters wants to take credit for every drop in drug use that occurs on his watch, he'll have to take the blame for the enormous increases in past-month LSD use among high school seniors and  past-month methamphetamine use among sophomores, both of which nearly doubled between 2007 and 2008 (hitting a whopping 1.1 percent and 0.7 percent, respectively).

Be careful out there, kids! Thanks to the total failure of the war on drugs, you are up to your asses in acid and meth, but seriously, do not mix them. It will suck. You’ll get arrested (and probably tasered, too).

See, contrary to the drug czar’s wild accusations, those of us who want to end the drug war have no interest in seeing young people make poor choices. And the fact that America’s high schools are overflowing with acid and speed ought to help illustrate why closing the black market is actually a perfectly rational approach to keeping powerful drugs away from our kids.

Methamphetamine: Graphic Montana Scare Campaign May Not Work After All, Study Finds

The Montana Meth Project, an anti-methamphetamine campaign based around scary images of the perils of meth use, has been widely touted as a successful public health intervention. Its images showing the extreme consequences of using the popular stimulant "just once" have been touted by supporters as highly effective at deterring teen meth use, and it has even garnered state and federal funding and been adopted by other states based on those claims.

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methamphetamine crystals
Not so fast, said the authors of a new study released this week. In Drugs, Money, and Graphic Ads: A Critical Review of the Montana Meth Project, published this month in the journal Prevention Science, researchers found that the ad campaign produced a number of negative consequences and challenged its impact on meth use rates in the state.

According to the study, teens who had been exposed to six months of the project's graphic ads were three times as likely to say they did not believe meth use was a risky behavior and four times more likely to strongly approve of regular meth use. Half of the teens said the ads exaggerated the dangers of meth use.

The Montana Meth Campaign and its proponents overlooked such unflattering results when presenting findings to the media and policymakers, the researchers said. Instead, the campaign portrayed its results in the most positive light possible.

The researchers also scoffed at claims the program had reduced meth use. "Meth use had been declining for at least six years before the ad campaign commenced, which suggests that factors other than the graphic ads cause reductions in meth use. Another issue is that the launch of the ad campaign coincided with restrictions on the sale of cold and flu medicines commonly used in the production of meth. This means that drug use could be declining due to decreased production of meth, rather than being the result of the ad campaign," said review author David Erceg-Hurn in a Society for Prevention Research news release Thursday.

Ereceg-Hurn also attacked the theoretical underpinnings of the campaign. "The idea behind the ad campaign is that teenagers take meth because they believe it is socially acceptable, and not risky, and the ads are meant to alter these perceptions," he said. "However, this theory is flawed because the Meth Project's own data shows that 98% of teenagers strongly disapproved of meth use and 97% thought using meth was risky before the campaign started," Erceg-Hurn said.

Spending government funds on Meth Project-style campaigns is a waste of money, Erceg-Hurn concluded. Or, in more diplomatic terms: "Based on current evidence, continued public funding and rollout of Montana-style anti-methamphetamine graphic ad campaign programs is inadvisable."

Southeast Asia: Thai Government in New Drug Crackdown

The government of Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat announced a new anti-drug offensive last week aimed at a resurgent methamphetamine market and an enduring market in opium and heroin. Somchai said the new 90-day offensive could be seen as a continuation of the 2003 anti-drug campaign led by then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

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2003 protest at Thai embassy, DRCNet's David Guard in foreground
A Thai government commission investigating Thaksin's war "to make Thailand drug-free" found that nearly 3,000 people were killed, many of them not involved in the drug trade. While no criminal convictions have been handed down, it is widely assumed that most of those killed were executed by police anti-drug death squads.

Somchai said his government would take measures to prevent more killings, but like his predecessor, tried to pin the killings on "slayings among suspected drug dealers," not the extrajudicial execution of drug dealers. That isn't exactly building confidence among Thai drug users and sellers or among the human rights community, which strongly criticized Thailand over the 2003 murder spree.

"The prime minister says that this time around killings will not be tolerated, but the government said the same thing last time," said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, in a Wednesday news release warning that more abuses could lie ahead. "Somchai's credibility is at stake here."

After Thaksin was deposed last year, the government of General Surayud Chulanont appointed a special committee chaired by former Attorney General Khanit na Nakhon to investigate the extrajudicial killings that took place in 2003 as part of the "war on drugs." After five months of inquiries, the committee provided findings that 2,819 people had been killed between February-April 2003.

Many of those killed had been blacklisted by police or local authorities as suspected drug dealers. Police officers were suspected to have been involved in many of the attacks, particularly as many were killed soon after being summoned to police stations for questioning. For example, a 42-year-old grocery shop owner, Somjit Khayandee, was shot dead execution style in her house in Petchburi province on February 20, 2003, three days after she had been summoned to the police station. Local police told Somjit's relatives that her name was on their blacklist.

Police and other anti-drugs units in Thailand have sweeping powers and rarely face punishment for abuses and misconduct. The sense that officials will not be held accountable for their actions is so strong that abusive officials have sought promotion, fame, and financial rewards from the suffering of their victims.

"Many of the same people suspected of killings and other abuses in the last 'war on drugs' remain in positions of authority," Adams said. "The government should prosecute and discipline those involved in previous abuses and institute reforms before asking the police to mount another campaign. Otherwise, more people are likely to be killed."

While Thai authorities said they were going to concentrate on drug dealers, they also said drug users caught up in the net would participate in rehabilitation programs at military bases or be sent to prison. But given Thailand's poor record with respect to coerced drug treatment, that is not good news. Since 2003, thousands of people have been coerced into rehabilitation centers run by security forces without a clinical assessment that they are indeed drug dependent. Many have been held for extended periods of time -- usually 45 days -- in prison-based facilities, even if they are later referred to outpatient treatment. "Rehabilitation" is often provided by security personnel, with military drills a mainstay of the "treatment" provided.

Such coerced treatment has the effect of driving drug users away from seeking treatment or even government-sponsored health care services, Human Rights Watch said. With an estimated 40-50 percent of drug users in Thailand HIV-positive, this may keep drug users from accessing lifesaving HIV-prevention services and treatment.

"Forcing drug users into badly designed rehabilitation programs is incompatible with international standards requiring fully informed consent to treatment," Adams said. "Furthermore, fear of prosecution and harsh treatment will drive them away from seeking health care services that are theirs by right and that could actually help them."

Thailand's latest war on drugs is looking a lot like a war on drug users. That's a shocker.

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