Helen Clark commends Thailand’s progress on cannabis decriminalization
Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who is currently chairing the Global Commission on Drug Policy and is a member of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty, has lauded Thailand’s efforts in decriminalizing cannabis. She believes that the country’s decision to remove cannabis from the Category 5 narcotics list is a significant step towards ending the criminalization of people who use drugs.
Clark highlighted her concerns at the Harm Reduction International Conference 2023 (HR23), noting that decriminalizing drug use could save money, relieve the pressure on law enforcement and the judicial system, and promote good health for those using drugs. The Thai government’s actions and potential future changes in their laws are being watched closely by other countries in Southeast Asia, which is known for having a heavy-handed approach to drugs.
Despite the progress made in decriminalizing cannabis, Thailand continues to impose capital punishment, including for those convicted of drug offenses. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reports that around 284 million people worldwide have used an illicit or controlled drug in the past year—an increase of 26% since 2010. Furthermore, the risk of acquiring HIV is 35 times higher among people who inject drugs.
Harm reduction and the death penalty
Clark also asserts that the death penalty for drug offenses is a disproportionate response and is against international law. She campaigns for both an end to the death penalty in general and specifically for drug offenses. Harm reduction, which includes decriminalizing drug use, is essential to safeguard the health and well-being of those who use drugs.
Additionally, punitive drug laws contribute to prison overcrowding. One in five people in prison worldwide are held for drug offenses, amounting to approximately 2.2 million individuals. Harm reduction strategies, such as providing support and safe conditions for people using drugs without the threat of incarceration, can address these issues effectively.
Encouraging new approaches in Southeast Asia
Considering the context of Southeast Asian drug policies, Clark urges governments to prioritize the health and well-being of their citizens over punitive prohibition measures. Emphasizing harm reduction efforts, which have proven to be effective and cost-efficient, could lead to better outcomes.
However, substantial barriers to harm reduction services remain in many countries, including the criminalization of syringes and drug paraphernalia. These restrictive laws disproportionately impact vulnerable populations, such as women, indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities, children, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Ultimately, Clark emphasizes the importance of political will in the push for better drug policies and emphasizes the need for intersectoral human rights movements across the globe. She envisions a future in which harm reduction services are available and accessible to all, and human rights are upheld for every individual, regardless of their choices surrounding drug use.