Crazy pills and double crosses: Drug use among tourists in Thailand

SAY what you will about Thailand’s hellhole jails – they’ve inspired an entire bestselling genre of books, the drug trafficker prison memoir.

Sign near ferry in Thailand. Image © Dorami Chan/Creative Commons.

Warren Fellows’ The Damage Done recounts the author’s years wasting away in Bang Kwang Central Prison after his conviction for heroin trafficking. Andy Botts’ Nightmare in Bangkok does much the same with the author’s stint in Klong Prem Prison.

David McMillan improves on the plot with his breakout thriller Escape: the True Story of the Only Westerner Ever to Break Out of Thailand’s Bangkok Hilton. Even female drug smugglers get due representation through Sandra Gregory’s memoir Forget You Had A Daughter.

Their experiences should clue you in: drugs in Thailand are very risky business. The hedonism of party hot spots like Koh Phangan and Phuket aside, the laws governing the use of illegal drugs are extremely strict. Thailand’s northern mountains, after all, are part of the heroin-producing Golden Triangle itself. Only harsh enforcement (such as it is) has prevented the country from getting completely swamped in methamphetamines and heroin.

The Measure for Suppressing Narcotic Offenders Act 2534 (1991), The Narcotics Act 2522 (1979), and the Psychotropic Substances Act 2518 (1975) define controlled substances in Thailand and dictate the sentences to be meted out for possession and trafficking of such substances.

The harshest sentences are given to arrestees found in possession of schedule 1 psychotropics like GHB (the date rape drug) and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the isolated active ingredient of marijuana), or Category 1 narcotics like heroin, meth, ecstasy and LSD. The former can get you up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to THB 400,000 ($15,000); the latter can get you a life sentence or death, if caught with more than 20 grams of category 1 drugs.

Cannabis possession gets away with relatively little – two to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to THB 1,500,000 for trafficking, a year’s imprisonment and a fine of up to THB 1,000,000 for consumption. (More on drug sentencing in Thailand here.) In reality, the sentences for possession of a couple of grams of cannabis are likely to be nowhere so severe. Scores of backpackers are caught with cannabis on party island Koh Phangan each month and usually walk away having paid a stiff fine. If caught, the penalty will likely vary depending on a number of factors, including location, the arresting officer and more.

Full moon party at Koh Phangan. Image © YoTuT/Creative Commons

Enforcement in Thailand can be capricious, even brutal. In 2003, then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra announced a crackdown on drugs, whereupon over 2,000 drug dealers were shot dead by as-yet unknown perpetrators. While the death penalty for drugs has only been sparingly used, local magistrates are not afraid to impose long prison sentences on foreigners caught trafficking in illegal drugs.

When the police aren’t looking, drugs are easy to come by. Yaba (Thai for “crazy medicine” – meth and caffeine pills), marijuana and “magic mushroom” shakes are available to the tourist in the know, especially in Thai island destinations like Koh Phangan or Koh Phi Phi. You’re just as likely to be double-crossed by your dealer, though, and busted by the cops immediately afterward.

Here are a couple of tips to keep in mind if drugs ever cross your radar in Thailand:

  • If you’re offered drugs by a dealer on the street, walk away. Some dealers work with the cops to trap unwitting tourists.
  • Full moon parties are infested with undercover narcotics police. Do not get carried away by the party mood and try to get a score.
  • If you absolutely must, indulge only with your closest friends and in the privacy of your own accommodations.
  • Harsh penalties are meted out to tourists possessing prescription drugs without a corresponding prescription. Bring one when visiting Thailand with your meds.

Disregard any of these rules of thumb at your own peril. If your mistakes get you a complimentary stay at the Bangkok Hilton.

For more information on the reality of life behind bars in Thailand, check out Richard Barrow’s excellent Thai Prison Life blog