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Thailand's Killing Streets
April 09, 2003
Maia Szalavitz
The Times finds a methamphetamine epidemic

In Thailand, over 2,000 suspected drug dealers—and in some cases, their young children—have been summarily executed in the streets by police in the past two months. Many were shot leaving police stations, after having turned themselves in to answer summonses on drug charges.

But a New York Times article, ostensibly covering these extra-judicial killings from a human rights angle, allows deceptive statistics to stand as a rationale for the campaign. In quoting Korea’s Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra chiding the United Nations and human rights observers for not caring about the impact of drugs on Thailand’s children, the Times writes:

“Indeed the country's children are at risk in the drug epidemic. The government says 700 million methamphetamine pills are smuggled from Myanmar every year, most of them for use in Thailand. It says three million people use the drug – which is known here as yaa baa, or ‘crazy medicine’ – including 300,000 people who are addicted, in a population of 63 million.”

Yet 300,000 speed addicts and 3 million amphetamine users in a population of 63 million people only adds up to an amphetamine use rate of just under 5% and an addiction rate of a little less than half a percent.

These figures are virtually the same for the general population here in the United States, and have been since government surveys on drug use started in the 1970s. About 5% of the U.S. population over 12 reports non medical use of stimulants (primarily amphetamine and methamphetamine) and roughly half a percent have used in the last month (the number of last-month-users is often used by drugs researchers as a rough indication of the number likely to be addicted) in statistics from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Also, when the first government drug use surveys of American high school seniors were taken in the 1970s, over 15% of high school seniors reported having at least tried illicit stimulants. In 1981, one of the peak years for drug use in America, almost 30% of seniors reported having used an illicit stimulant in the previous year. But the numbers bounce around, reaching a low of 5% annual use in the early 90s. By 2000, 10% of high school seniors reported illicit amphetamine use within the last year and 5% said they had taken such drugs in the last month.

Nothing justifies executions of citizens without due process, of course – but especially not drug statistics that are difficult to correlate with drug policy, economic strength, youth achievement or anything else, and which rely on self-reports of illegal behavior.



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