BANGKOK – Sixteen-year-old Pichai Gudsorn is small for his age. He grew up in poverty, in a slum in Bangkok’s suburban Praram III area, with a sibling and six cousins who were raised by their 70-year-old grandmother.
She makes a meagre living selling trash, and Pichai’s parents seldom visit.
“I never had money and I was bullied at school all the time because I was poor,” Pichai said – but all that changed when he was introduced to drugs
by a friend.
At the age of 12 he began selling methamphetamine’s and dropped out of school. He was taking them as well, until two months ago, when he was arrested for the third time for selling drugs.
Cases like Pichai’s are the side effect of the rampant trade in ya ba – a drug combining meth and caffeine – in Thailand, where prices have plummeted as the supply of drugs grows.
A decade ago, ya ba pills cost 250 baht to 350 baht (US$8-US$11) each, but Pichai’s experience as a drug mule was different.
“I was paid 200 baht to 300 baht to deliver 20-30 methamphetamine pills. I later bought [the entire amount] to sell, at around 1,500 baht, or lower if my credit is good … before selling them at 250 baht for a pair of pills to taxi drivers, construction workers and migrant workers,” he said.
But where are these drugs coming from?
According to the Thai government, there are more than 10 ya ba production bases in the Golden Triangle, where Chiang Rai Thailand, Myanmar and Laos converge on the banks of the Mekong River. The area, long controlled by armed militants, has an estimated production capacity of 2 million ya ba tablets a day.
“The ‘oversupply’ causing the price drops of ya ba is linked to the massive surge coming out of [Myanmar’s] Shan State into Thailand across the border around Chiang Rai, but also increasingly through Laos to bypass Thai efforts along the Myanmar border,” said Jeremy Douglas, regional representative of the United Nations office on drugs and crime for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
Use of ya ba, which has long been popular among labourers and truck drivers as a stimulant, boomed in the early 2000s. The administration of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra responded with a controversial war on drugs in 2003, which saw widespread international condemnation after more than 2,800 extrajudicial killings in the campaign’s first three months.
The high production capacity has also rendered ineffective the government’s subsequent attempts to control ya ba. From November 2018 to January 2019, Thai authorities seized 247 million pills; it confiscated 248 million in 2017 alone, up from 124 million in 2016.
“It, unfortunately, shows the heavy Thai efforts are having little impact on supply to the streets, and that the interception rates are likely low even though seizures are rising,” Douglas said.
“There is a chance the situation might turn around somewhat – and I say might – if regional leaders are willing to consider the gravity of the problem and completely rebalance their approach.
“Basically, they need to get away from quick fixes and the usual focus on mass street-level arrests, seriously focus on organised crime, which is running amok in the region, and start to deal with market demand by getting treatment, prevention and harm minimisation efforts in place.”
Those mass street-level arrests have caused another aftershock of the drug epidemic – prison overcrowding. As of March 2018, 74 per cent of inmates in Thailand were held on drug-related charges.
“The prisons in Thailand will be empty without prisoners on drug charges,” said Sunthorn Sunthorntarawong, 68, a Protestant pastor who runs the House of Blessing Foundation, an organization that acts as a juvenile detention centre and also manages vocational and social rehabilitation programs for adult inmates before and after their release from custody.
Pichai was arrested while selling crystal meth, or “ice”, to a police informant. He was handed a two-year juvenile detention sentence, which he chose to serve with the House of Blessing, a partner organisation of Thailand’s correction department. He said he did not need treatment, but wanted to finish his long overdue primary-level education in the 22 months he has remaining at the foundation.
Sunthorn said cases such as Pichai’s were common. “They begin as drug mules because they want to buy things like mobile phones or bicycles before they start taking drugs together,” he said.
Jaroenchai Klaimek, 26, who works with Sunthorn at the foundation, said the way for young mules or addicts to turn their lives around was by breaking ties with friends who were involved in drugs.
A former drug dealer, he was in and out of four detention centres before the age of 20, where he said he had made many business contacts before leaving it all behind eight years ago.
“In the detention centre, the more drugs you’re arrested with, the cooler you are,” Jaroenchai said, recalling his first-hand experience of the ya ba boom.
“I could sell 200 ya ba pills for 25,000 baht, after I bought them for 18,000 baht,” he said. “Within half an hour those pills would reach the hands of construction workers, office workers, motorbike taxi drivers, street cleaners, managers and actresses. But with the cheap meth price now, I cannot imagine anyone would want to risk dealing it.”
The government has implemented a free treatment programme for addicts in exchange for a reduced – or, in some cases, withdrawn – jail sentence, but there have been fewer volunteers than the authorities hoped. “No addicts would think of themselves as sick,” Sunthorn said.
He has been helping addicts and inmates for the past 40 years, and still has hope for those he encounters. “There is no measure to save a man from getting involved with drugs but we want them to be able to depend on themselves. We only have to trust that they will do that.”