Kicking drugs the army way

August 8, 2010

At the Camp Addison Calvary Base in Saraburi they call the new arrivals students, but they are all amphetamine (ya ba) addicts. They are now under army tutelage and the army’s job is to clean them up in four months.

Ya ba is the most popular drug in the country and a poison that is draining the country’s human resources and filling up its prisons.

“The ya ba scourge is largely confined to the underprivileged classes, with perhaps a 5% contribution from the middle class (pu dee). However, you will not find pu dee at a military base,” said Jiraporn Bunshuvong of the Probation Department’s Rehabilitation Coordination Section

At Camp Addison they do it the army way. The students are up at 5.30am for jogging and calisthenics. After that there are group therapy sessions in which religion plays a minor role. In the afternoon they have competitive sports ranging from vigorous football sessions to takraw and the more sedate table tennis. There are no holidays.

“These students are undisciplined and are mostly slum dwellers from central Thailand, with about 5% of them ex-military. They have serious family problems and exhibit a limited attention span. They do not play sports and get little exercise. Look at the tattoos,” said one army instructor. “They can stand pain, but our job is to turn them into productive citizens.”

“We do not use any medicine here,” said Colonel Tumanun Gritnoi, who heads the programme. “We employ no detox, induced vomiting, herbal or holistic treatments. We do not use quack remedies. Everyone gets equal treatment.

“The solution must come from the heart. These addicts think drugs will cure all of life’s problems. We show them the social advantages of kicking the habit.”

With ya ba there aren’t any classic withdrawal symptoms, but all detainees have been in prison for 45 days before coming to the army detention centres and by then their bodies are well purged of drugs. Some 5% are marijuana cases, but this is usually mixed with ya ba or the stronger amphetamine called ice.

Contrary to what might be expected, the students this writer saw did not look like a ragtag collection. All appeared young and fit. In fact, the entire cavalry base was a cigarette- and fat-free zone.

The army screens out HIV/Aids and tuberculosis cases as well as those with heart conditions. No contagious diseases are allowed but the programme will accept the physically handicapped.

Routine medical and dental problems are handled by the army, with a staff nurse and doctor on call. Most students already have free health insurance under the gold card plan of the government’s National Health Security Office.

Sunday is visiting day and detainees can have three-hour sessions with their families. Lovers are not allowed to touch. Urine tests are performed after visits and there are also routine tests each month. Few are found positive, said an army instructor.

When Spectrum was invited to Saraburi, the first question that came to mind was how the army became involved in this business. It would seem that drug rehabilitation is a medical responsibility and the military is best left to defending the country.

Nevertheless, the Royal Thai Army is handling a large share of the country’s drug addicts, having charge of 31 rehabilitation centres out of 86 under the Probation Department’s auspices.

The present coterie of 97 students at Saraburi are all males, including one transvestite. They are drilled in calisthenics and sports by a team of 24 officers who also conduct group therapy sessions. The officers are trained by the Ministry of Public Health. The Probation Department offers supervision of the programme in weekly visits and the students get limited vocational instruction from visiting civilian teachers.

Technically speaking drug use is not a crime, but when caught a user is classified as an addict and required to enter a programme that could last up to three years.

The core of the rehabilitation programme is a four-month regimen that can be quite rigorous. Some, in fact, prefer imprisonment and agree to a small possession charge for a quicker release.

Another way is to escape – and the Saraburi Cavalry has had 59 escapees among the 1,900 students it has handled since 2003. Escapees can be arrested but they are often ignored by police.

Citing follow-up statistics on their graduates, the army claims 90% are narcotics-free after one year. Beyond that the army can’t say, but approximately 3% of those who complete the programme show up at one of its facilities later to go through rehabilitation again.

After completing the four-month programme the addicts are released but they still must report to an office of the Probation Department for drug testing and interviews. This obligation ends if they are clean of drugs for one year.

Each probation session involves a urine test, but these can be tricked by drinking lots of water and abstaining for four days. Probation officers also rely on personal and family interviews, and stress the importance of employment.

”We also have spies,” said Ms Jiraporn, who led our group to Saraburi. She said the Probation Department pays for the daily personal expenses of the detainees, which are figured at 183 baht per day.

The army’s expenses are much higher, but it has arranged a budget to take care of the centres.

Addicts’ interviews
Spectrum was allowed to talk to several young men placed in military-run drug rehabilitation centres without interference from their military instructors or probation officers.

GRADUATION DAY: One student, we’ll call him Kai, had just completed the 120-day programme in Saraburi and was due to leave with his family in a few hours. He did not seem excited and answered questions with the precision of a military computer.

Kai said he first started using ya ba 10 years ago when he was only 16. Since that time he had expanded his drug intake with a bit of the more expensive amphetamine called ice.

All along Kai was gainfully employed repairing motor vehicles. He had good relations with his employer, parents, wife and his five-year-old daughter. None of these parties knew of his bad habit. He would take drugs alone or with a circle of close friends.

Kai said one pill a day at 200 baht was enough to sustain his habit, but he would take more when offered. If pills or money were unavailable he would go without and could manage to abstain indefinitely.

This would classify him more as a user than an addict. When he had abstained for a while, what caused him to get back on the habit were invitations from friends or arguments with his wife.

In his 10 years on drugs Kai had no serious health problems. He showed none of the classic signs of addiction and had a good job and satisfactory family relations.

When Spectrum asked him what was his big problem with ya ba, he responded: “There isn’t any.”

He added that the rigorous army therapy had returned his mind and body to a normal state, and that he had no more yearning for drugs.

FIRST DAY: Aet had just arrived and was a bit apprehensive about what awaited him. He was arrested while sleeping in a rented slum room. The door was open and the police entered because there was some commotion outside.

Aet was taken to a police station and then to a hospital for a urine check that turned out to be positive for ya ba. Upon returning to the station he signed a blank confession. The police later filled in the details, which Aet said did not correspond with reality. After a brief court appearance he was taken to the Min Buri Prison, where he spent 45 days. The conditions were so crowded that inmates had to sleep on their sides, body-to-body. Going to the toilet meant stepping over prostrated forms.

Police did not offer Aet a chance to be booked for minor possession.

If the police had agreed to charge him for possession of a small amount it would have spared him a lengthy rehabilitation and allowed him bail. With this unorthodox option, he would get a nominal sentence and a small fine. This was what Aet was hoping for, as he felt prison conditions would be far better than the military detention centre.

In some cases the police offer a drug user the chance to be an informer in exchange for dropping the matter. Aet did not get this offer, probably because he was working full-time as a construction welder and was obviously not an insider in the local drug trade.

He was an occasional user and had just returned to ya ba a few days before his detention. It was all bad luck, he moaned, because he is normally satisfied with whisky sessions after work.

However, in a good-natured manner, Aet had accepted his fate.

A FORMER STUDENT: Uut was sent to an infantry base in Loei province to join one of the first groups to go through military-style drug rehabilitation in 2003. The rehabilitation programme had just begun, set up by the Narcotic Addict Rehabilitation Act of 2002.

Unlike at Saraburi, Uut was confined for six months. There were about 100 men in his group, aged from 15 to 78. Nobody tried to escape.

The routine of vigorous physical exercise and group therapy was similar to Saraburi. Uut noted that the instructors were knowledgeable about the drug problem.

Cigarette smoking was allowed in designated areas but there were no off-base drunken orgies as is sometimes rumoured. Visiting hours and telephone calls were more liberal than they are now.

Uut said the food was not bad and sleeping conditions were like those in the army. It was far better than being in prison, he said.

At the time he completed the programme he thought it had been successful and did not harbour any bitterness. However, since that time he has been in and out of prison and other rehabilitation schemes.

REHAB CENTRES: Roughly 100,000 people are detained as drug users each year. Official statistics for 2009 show that 20,776 detainees were placed under rehabilitation at the 86 centres listed, an average of 242 inmates per centre. Another 30,000 of those detained in 2009 remain in prison waiting for treatment. Approximately 35,000 are under the tutelage of the Probation Department. They could be on bail, undergoing personal consultation or taking therapy at temples. Another 15,000 have escaped government facilities or are not reporting to the Probation Department.

This article was originally published in the Bangkok Post and is reproduced here as a prison blog with permission of the author.

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