Somporn Sripanrod, the ministry of health official tasked with the Phuket Provincial Narcotics Control Management Center (Phuket-PNCME), described the scale of the problem simply: “Right now we are seizing more drugs than ever before.”
At a PNCME meeting in October, presided over by Phuket Governor Phakaphong Tavipatana and with Phuket Vice Governor Supoj Rotreuang Na Nongkhai present, it was revealed that more than 7,000 arrests had been made for drugs from Jan 1 through Sept 30 this year alone, giving an average of 23 people arrested each day.
Although there are areas where some types of drugs are more prevalent than others, Mr Somporn notes that the problem is islandwide. “Different types of drugs are found in all three districts across the island, though young people are more likely to be found with kratom and ya bah (methamphetamine in pill form),” he said.
To Vice Governor Supoj, the issue is simple: “The arrest statistics confirm that the number is increasing.”
V/Gov Supoj believes that the explosion in drug use is due to dealers and key distributors slashing prices to make them more attractive to potential users, hence luring more and more everyday people to buy their product.
“This is especially true with ya bah and ya ice (crystal meth),” V/Gov Supoj recently told an anti-narcotics strategy meeting. “The cause is the price of the drugs, which has decreased extremely,” he added.
Distributors are flooding the island by using every form of delivery in order to bring the drugs onto the island by car, pickup, truck or van through the Phuket Check Point at the northern end of the island, by boat, by public transportation such as interprovincial buses, and the now-standard use of regular parcel delivery companies.
“New dealers are even using young people to transport drugs. One dealer used a 12-year-old,” V/Gov Supoj said.
The epidemic has seen yet another strategy drawn up to counter the spread of drugs through communities on the island.
Maj Gen Nantadech Yoinuan, Deputy Commander of Region 8 Police, explained that police will focus on the three main “risks”: 1) risk persons – people already convicted for drugs, teenagers with family problems; 2) risk behaviour – such as peer pressure and rebellious behaviour among youths; and 3) risk places – such as poor neighbourhoods and nightclubs across Phuket.
The counter-drugs offensive also features a three-prong attack: Defence, Suppression and Rehabilitation.
The Defence plan includes selecting specific villages (or neighbourhoods) and developing a ‘network’ within each of those villages/communities – with each police station on the island to look after 10 ‘networks’.
“This part of the campaign aims to have each area declared a ‘white village’. This strategy us supported by the government for now. The goal is to reduce the prevalence of drugs in these specified areas within three months,” Gen Nantadech explained.
“This project must solve the problem within three months and I expect that in one year we will see a positive change,” Gen Nantadech noted.
The Suppression campaign relies on ramped-up efforts to conduct raids resulting in arrests and seizures, and with some areas under 24-hour surveillance, he added.
However, Gen Nantadech had no explanation for any part of rehabilitation to be offered, and barely knew what happened with the thousands of people already arrested this year for drugs.
He suggested that first-timers caught for possession only were fined and released on suspended sentences, but he assured, “Every person convicted of selling drugs – no matter how much – is sentenced to serve a jail term as punishment.
“If Phuket prison is full, they will be sent to a prison in a ear province nearby,” he added.
Meanwhile, the campaign to educate youths of the danger of drugs continues, Gen Nantadech said.
Kratom is easily the most popular drug among youths, Mr Somporn explained. “Because it is cheaper than methamphetamine and easier to get than other kinds of drugs,” he said.
“Youths can get kratom easily because it is cheap, and they can even secretly plant it in a rubber plantations or in the hills,” he added.
However, kratom’s popularity among young people is not spiralling upward for the light stimulant effect gained from chewing the plant’s leaves, as traditionally used for centuries across Southern Thailand, where the plant grows naturally – they mix it into an elixir called ‘4x100’ for extra buzz.
“When teenagers get kratom, they mix it with other ingredients such as cough syrup, coke (Coca-Cola) and other things to make Si Kun Roy,” Mr Somporn explained.
“This Si Kun Roy is one of most seized drugs by police,” he added.
The difference in effect between chewing the leaves and drinking 4x100 is dramatic. One of Phuket’s most horrific crimes on record involved the drink when in April last year a man hanged his own 11-month-old baby girl and then himself and broadcast the entire incident on Facebook live on the internet. Throughout the heart-wrenching video, he took sips of his kratom drink. (See story here.)
To Gen Nantadech, the fight against kratom use lies with community leaders in the villages.
“Police are in contact with village chiefs and other officials about this and they will lead the way in fighting the use of kratom in the villages, with police in support,” he said.
“But to be truly effective we need everyone to look out in their own neighbourhoods. People can report drugs in the areas by many ways, even by calling (the police national hotline) 191.”