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Thailand's Unique Drug Culture

Thailand may not be officially at war with drugs these days, but it is under invasion nevertheless. And getting high is not the only reason why the illicit trade is booming, it seems. Last week, 80 Bangkok primary school students were rushed to hospital showing various symptoms of drug intoxication. Find out why they took the drugs here...

In the last few days of January, 2010 Narcotics Suppression Bureau (NSB) officers seized almost 4 million speed pills in raids across the Bangkok area. While this represented the NSB’s biggest haul of recent times, it is barely expected to make a dent in the thriving trade and use of methamphetamines, also known locally as ya ba (crazy drug).

However, there was no sense of victory following the busts – quite the contrary. NSB deputy commander Harnpol Nitwibul emphasized the hopelessness of his agency’s task when he told the Bangkok Post, "Now they're [drugs] back again. They are everywhere and the problem is unstoppable."

But Thailand’s drug culture is not only booming; it’s branching out into new and worrying markets.

When 80 Bangkok primary school students were taken to hospital last week after they were discovered to be under the influence of drugs, surprisingly few were simply trying to get high. Many believed that the drug would whiten or smoothen their skin, while others were even convinced the drug would make them smarter. Oh the irony! The emperor wears no clothes indeed!

The students, many as young as 9 or 10, had taken large quantities of cough relief tablets containing dextromethorphan at Wat Tha Phra school in Bangkok Yai district. Suffering from nausea, irregular heartbeat and severe headache, the students were taken to three nearby hospitals where 12 of them were in a serious enough condition to have their stomachs pumped.

Locally available cough tablets contain 15mg of dextromethorphan, with the maximum daily dosage recommended at 120mg. Dextromethorphan is known to produce euphoric effects and hallucinations when consumed in amounts exceeding maximum doses. However, it does not make you beautiful or smart, apparently.

The drugs were believed to have been brought into the school by an 11-year-old student who bought them at a local games shop. The 24-year-old games shop keeper, Suwamit Montriwibulchai, admitted to police that he had sold the drugs to some students and was charged with selling medicine without permission. The Bangkok Post reported that Mr. Suwamit said he used the pills to treat himself and after a while he felt "rejuvenated". Quite!

Poignantly reflective of Thai society as a whole, Thailand’s drug culture is as distinct from Western drug culture as tom yam koong is from fish ‘n’ chips. Rather than “freeing their minds”, many Thais are buying promises of a short cut to beauty, success, intelligence or happiness.

In a society where making religious merit doesn’t even involve performing good deeds for society, and where cancelling out all the bribes you paid, laws you broke, and other selfish deeds you perpetrated simply involves nothing more than buying a caged bird and setting it free, a culture of quick fixes has evolved.

I have personally known countless students come into language schools a week or so before their IELTS test and expect us to magically prepare them – something which should take anywhere from 1 to 6 months.

Love potions, lotteries, whitening creams and charlatan panaceas. Thailand is turning into a quick fix nation that is ripe for exploitation by drug peddlers, legal or otherwise.

Paul Snowdon – February 6, 2010

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