Narcotics use had been reported at Koh Pha-Ngan for many years, yet officials did not focus their efforts on the island, partly because the drugs were mainly used by tourists during parties.
However, the Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) decided to turn its attention to the spot, where news of drug use – which is often followed with violence – is threatening to tarnish the image of the resort island, just off the Surat Thani coastline.
Koh Pha-Ngan is not the only target of the ONCB’s latest drug crackdown. They are also cracking down on drugs at other tourist destinations in the province – namely Koh Samui and Koh Tao.
“They all must be placed under a microscopic watch. The province’s drug problem has been hard to deal with,” said Sirinya Sitdhichai, the outgoing secretary-general of the Office of the Narcotics Control Board, as he led hundreds of officers to Koh Pha-Ngan early last week.
The inspection of Koh Pha-Ngan was a final trip for Mr Sirinya, who retired yesterday (Sept 30).
He has now passed the baton to his successor, Niyom Toemsisuk, the new chief of the ONCB, who accompanied him.
The widespread use of narcotics in these world-renowned islands is just a tip of the iceberg of the southern region’s drug problem.
In fact, the two are linked, which shows the drugs problem on the islands is not confined to tourists at all.
The ONCB and police have marked the province with a red pen.
In addition to news of drug parties among foreign tourists, the police have learnt that the province has been used as a transit point for drug smuggling to neighbouring countries, Malaysia in particular.
Around 70-80% of the drugs smuggled in the South are meant to be transported overseas.
The remainder is meant to be circulated in the province, mostly to revellers in Surat Thani’s premier beach destinations.
As a result, Mr Sirinya decided to focus on three main islands in particular.
Surat Thani-based Don Sak Police chief Sutthi Nitiakkharanon welcomed the ONCB’s move to intensify drug searches at two major ports – Racha and Sea Tran – where ferries take travellers to Koh Samui.
The route is popular among tourists who will catch another boat at the island to Koh Pha-Ngan.
More officers will be deployed to conduct searches on the day the Full Moon party is held.
Smugglers often bring marijuana and crystal methamphetamine (ya ice), which are highly popular among tourists on the islands.
Ya ice is usually priced at B1,000 per gram in Surat Thani, but the same amount of drug is priced between B2,000-3,000 on Koh Pha-Ngan.
Smugglers deploy various tactics to escape drug searches, with veteran users and smugglers known to hide drugs in snacks, even in red curry paste packets.
This method prevents dogs from sniffing the drugs, Col Sutthi said, so officials must rely on their experience to observe any irregularities instead.
“Just scanning travellers and their belongings before they go to the islands is no longer enough. We decided to do a double check on trips to and from the Full Moon party to mainland Surat Thani,” Col Sutthi said.
Recently, police decided to call for urine tests from travellers at piers for those suspected of being high from drugs, which has helped them arrest wrongdoers.
So far in this year alone, police have found 1,000 suspects guilty of drug offences, and sent many of them to prison.
Officials have been trying to prevent inmates from returning to drugs once they are released. Most inmates serving time are there for drug offences.
One method is to provide vocational training courses for released inmates, said Niyom Toemsisuk, the newly appointed secretary-general of the Office of the Narcotics Control Board.
“Providing career training is another method to reduce the rate of relapse among newly-released inmates,” he said.
“At the very least it helps the government by preventing drug convicts from returning to the same old vicious cycle”
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