Drug possession is no laughing matter in the Land of Smiles: Thailand’s stringent drug laws make no exceptions for tourists

Known for its tropical scenery and laid back hospitality, most tourists wouldn’t think to research ‘drug laws in Thailand’ before they depart on their fantasy getaway. We see pictures of full moon parties on the southern islands and hear stories of mushroom shake trips in the northern hills, but quite infrequently do we hear about drug related arrests of tourists. Sure enough, these stories don’t make the ideal postcard images to send home to mom, but they do happen and visitors to Thailand should be aware of the steep penalties associated with drug use and possession in the ‘Land of Smiles.’

Drug laws in Thailand

drug laws in thailand-3Under the narcotics act of Thailand, illegal drugs are defined and classified as either narcotic or psychotropic substances. These substances may be natural or synthetic varieties that alter or impair the psychological or physical state of the person who consumes the drug. Narcotics are specifically defined as substances that affect a person in such a significant manner that they require continual increase of dosage, experience withdrawal symptoms when deprived of the substance, and cause deterioration of health.

Narcotics are classified into five major categories: Category I, dangerous narcotics such as heroine; Category II, ordinary narcotics such as morphine, cocaine, codeine, medicinal opium; Category III, narcotics which are in form of medicinal formula and contain narcotics of Category II; Category IV, narcotics which consist of chemical used for producing narcotics of Category I or II such as acetic anhydride, or acetyl chloride and; Category V, narcotics which are not included in Category I-IV such as marijuana or Kratom plant [1].

Psychotropic substances are classified into four categories or ‘schedules:’ Schedule 1, which includes Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the active ingredient of cannabis), Gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB), Psychedelic Mushrooms, and DMT;

Schedule 2, which includes Ketamine, Ephedrine, Midazolam (Dormicum, Versed etc.), and Triazolam (Halcion); Schedule 3, medical Barbiturates and; Schedule 4, which includes Alprazolam (Xanax), Diazepam (Valium), and Lorazepam (Ativan) among others.

It is important to note that several of the substances that are considered illegal drugs in Thailand are not only legal, but accessible over the counter in other countries, therefore, it is even more important to familiarize yourself with these classifications and be aware of what you are in possession of upon entering the Kingdom. This is not to say that you will be arrested on the spot for possession of prescription or over the counter drugs, but an official statement released by the Thai Embassy states that “travelers to Thailand under treatment of these medications are required to obtain a permit (Form IC-2) issued by the Food and Drug Administration before travelling to Thailand. Furthermore, the quantity of the medication transported into Thailand must not exceed 30 days of prescribed and a letter from the doctor is also recommended.

Beware the full moon

Many tourists in Thailand, particularly young travelers view Thailand as an exotic getaway, an escape from the realities of life and work back home. In some regards, this might be true. Thailand has a lot to offer in terms of enchanting scenery, relaxation, and yes, partying. The stimulation of this foreign environment and the allure of the fantasy of Thailand can be dangerous though, and for many, can lead down a dangerous and destructive path that will not end with you safely back in your bed.

The highly touristed southern islands are known for their full-moon parties. Thousands of young, buff bodies flock to these beaches during the full-moon (and now also on the half-moon and quarter-moon as well) to cover themselves in glow paint, dance to house music, and consume alcohol and drugs in excess, in particular, MDMA.

drug laws in thailand-2As you can imagine, no one goes into this experience expecting tragedy, but it does happen. Undercover police selling drugs to eager tourists, those already under the influence being taken advantage of physically, monetarily, and worse. Reports of injuries and fatalities during these parties are typically under-reported so as to preserve the image tourist industry, but drug-related deaths and overdoses frequently occur.

While its display is more public at these full-moon parties, recreational drug-use in Thailand certainly isn’t confined to one region of the country. Rugged backpackers make their way up north to Pai or Chiang Mai to indulge in mushrooms or smoke opium. Regardless of how easy these substances are to procure, the fact is that they are illegal and the penalty for use of any of these drugs is steep.

Drug mules in Thailand

A mule is someone who knowingly or unknowingly transports drugs on behalf of someone else. The mule typically receives a large payment for committing this act as there is obviously a high level of risk involved. Sometimes however, mules are blackmailed into smuggling drugs or more and more often, drugs are planted on unknowing tourists who sometimes are caught with these drugs with no idea of where they came from.

In 1990, Karyn Smith willingly agreed to go on a free holiday to Thailand with her friend, Patricia Cahill, paid for by Cahill’s boyfriend. Both women were arrested at a Bangkok airport on their way home, carrying what was at the time, one of the world’s largest heroin hauls. At the time this was the largest quantity of heroin that had been attempted to be smuggled out of Thailand.

UK national Sandra Gregory was arrested and sentenced to death in 1993 as she attempted to smuggle heroine inside a condom through the same airport. Her sentence was eventually reduced to 25 years in prison after she admitted to the act. She served four and a half years at Klong Prem prison before she as deported back to the UK to serve the remaining 21 years, but the Thai king granted her a pardon.

While this article focuses on drug penalties for foreign offenders, the law does not discriminate. As one example, former Thai model Yuyee was sentenced to 15 years in prison and ordered to pay a fine of 1.5 million baht for attempting to smuggle 251 milligrams of cocaine stuffed inside a chocolate package in her bag on a trip back from Vietnam. Yuyee admitted to the offense and also that the drugs were meant for herself and not for sale, but the court did not believe this defense.

Other offenders have received anywhere from 10-99 year prison sentences for acting as mules.

So what is the punishment for breaking the Thai laws?

While of course there are official laws regarding length and severity of sentences for drug-related charges, these punishments are dependent on a wide variety of factors including: past legal history, visa or citizenship status, judgment of arresting officer or case judge, quantity and type of drugs, etc.

Technically, For Schedule 1 and 2 Substances imprisonment of anywhere from 1-20 years and a fine of 20,000-400,000 baht may be applied. Steeper penalties are for intended or attempted importation or exportation sale. For Schedule 3 and 4 Substances imprisonment of 1-5 years and fines ranging from 20,000-100,000 baht may be applied.

Regarding narcotic substances, for Category 1 Substances 3 years-lifetime imprisonment is possible dependent on intent and fines of 20,000-1 million baht may be demanded. For Category 2 substances the offender can face six months-10 years imprisonment and fines of 10,000-5 million baht.

What to do if you are arrested in Thailand

drug laws in thailand-1As always, the best strategy to avoid legal problems relating to drugs in Thailand is to do your research. Knowing the risks of participation in certain events, activities, or exchanges is perhaps the best deterrent. When you are weighing the decision to partake in recreational drug-use in Thailand, remember that you are at the mercy of a foreign law and depending on the severity of your offense, could face a lifetime in prison or the death penalty; neither being the ideal finale to your vacation.

This being said, sometimes the temptation is too much, and you might find yourself in a legal dilemma. In this case, there are law firms in Thailand that specialize in drug-related cases, particularly pertaining to foreigner involvement. Upon arrest in Thailand, you are also highly encouraged to contacting your local embassy or consulate. In most cases, a consulate official will meet you in order to discuss your situation and options and can potentially assist you in attaining a lawyer. However, you should understand that the power of your local government will be limited as you are subject to Thai law having committed and illegal act in Thailand. In special cases, prisoners are allowed to return home to serve part of their sentences, but this is typically in the case of longer sentences and after a significant time has already been served in Thai prison.

When it comes to drug laws in Thailand, ignorance is not bliss. If you are looking for an escape from reality on your upcoming trip to Thailand, fine, escape in the sanctity of a beach hut while sipping coconut water and enjoying a non take-out pad thai, but if you choose to participate in drug-related activity, know you risks. Reliable information on drug laws in Thailand can be accessed through Siam Legal, or through website of your local Thai Embassy.

[1] Kratom is a tree native to Southeast Asia. The leaves of the tree are often collected and chewed and act as an opiate. Kratom chewing is common among coffee farmers and other physical laborers to ease the strain of work, but its long-term effects are highly destructive and lead to physical dependency and severely decreased capacities.