Could Laos Move Toward Decriminalization of Soft Drugs?

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Amid a spate of recent high-profile moves against ‘soft drugs’ kratom and marijuana, many are left wondering why these should be a priority for law enforcement in Laos, and what the future of drug enforcement in the country will look like.

As recently as a few months ago, a casual observer in Laos might reasonably assume that drug policy here was fairly permissive. Teas and infusions made from leaves of the native kratom plant were being openly sold at night markets in the capital in clearly labeled bottles. Similarly, it didn’t take a very sharp eye to spot cannabis plants growing out in the open, in front of private residences. Yet, in light of the 2021 declaration of the drug problem as a “national agenda” and an ensuing spate of high-profile drug enforcement actions against those growing and selling kratom and cannabis, this seems to have all been quickly brushed under the carpet.

Aside from the longstanding and widespread traditional and folk medicinal uses of these plants in the region, there were some signs that drug policy regarding the two plants may have been moving in a more liberal direction. In 2019, for example, the Lao government formally began the process of evaluating cannabis for possible medicinal use. Additionally, the growing international trend towards decriminalization, which has been seen across the Americas, Europe, and even as close to home as neighboring Thailand, seemed like it might spread to other countries in the region. However, recent events have signaled that Laos is moving in the opposite direction.

The recent official directives to intensify drug enforcement are, in many ways necessary and laudable, given an uptick in violence related to drug trafficking which has claimed the lives of law enforcement officers. Additionally, they are proving effective in some ways, as police are making historic drug busts. And yet this prompts the question: are cannabis and kratom dangerous plants that have any association with organized crime? And is the enforcement push really achieving its stated aims?

The physiological, psychiatric, and sociocultural harms of substances such as methamphetamine and heroin are clear and well-documented, as is their association with regional organized crime and political instability in neighboring countries. Unfortunately, Laos seems to serve as both a waypoint and production center for both of these substances, which, coupled with the remoteness and difficult terrain of some border regions and production areas, pose deep challenges for law enforcement.

On the other hand, an increasingly robust body of scientific literature has established that, while not entirely benign, cannabis has a relatively low potential for harm to health, as well as a relatively low propensity for physical addiction, particularly when use does not begin at a very young age. The answers appear to be less clear-cut for kratom, though.

Some studies, for instance, have shown some potential for addiction, and some of the symptoms shown by older users suggest that there may be liver damage associated with chronic, long-term use. Confusingly, despite showing some potential for addiction, kratom also shows potential in treating opioid addiction, and pharmacologically it does not suppress respiration, so it cannot cause overdoses in the same manner as opiates.

The harms of marijuana and kratom are very obviously substantially less than those of hard drugs methamphetamine and heroin, and perhaps less even than two of humanity’s perennial favorites, tobacco, and alcohol, both of which remain legal throughout Laos and surrounding countries.

Furthermore, the documented association between organized crime and heroin and methamphetamine is clear, whereas marijuana and kratom do not have such a connection, seeming to be produced more as cottage industries by local farmers and villagers—an income source that could do much to help a population beleaguered by rampant inflation and Covid’s devastating effect on the economy.

So, it would make sense for the recent enforcement directives to target the drugs which are most harmful and also most linked to violence. Recent seizures of vast quantities of methamphetamine pills by Lao authorities show that the government is, indeed, tightening enforcement on these substances and those who traffic them. However, this has come along with subsequent moves against cannabis and kratom, causing some public outcry and calls for legalization over the arrest of several youths involved in making and selling kratom tea.

On a positive note, the authorities have refrained from sentencing the individuals connected with these kratom busts and others, opting instead to lecture and reprimand. However, possession of as little as five grams of kratom could be punishable by substantial jail time, which seems disproportionate given the emerging scientific literature on kratom and prevailing international legal policies towards it.

Worse yet, mere possession of larger quantities could result in lengthy prison terms, up to life in jail, and the death penalty is on the table for drug offenses deemed “serious” by authorities. The operators of these venues selling kratom tea have presumably been dealing in quantities that could merit life imprisonment—while law enforcement’s restraint in sentencing these individuals is positive, it seems that the law itself is potentially more harmful to individuals than the substance it attempts to regulate. Cannabis laws are similarly severe, and the plant in question is even more benign.

A two-pronged approach that considers the relative dangers of these different kinds of intoxicants, as well as the identities and status of those who are associated with them, maybe an advisable path forward. Police resources could be better spent targeting the more dangerous drugs, and the more dangerous individuals and organizations associated with those drugs; on the other hand, cannabis and kratom both show potential benefits as medicines and saleable commodities. More to the point, with proper legal controls, a liberalized approach to these substances could serve as a potential revenue source for an economy struggling to overcome huge challenges.

But what would such a change actually look like? With large-scale legal reforms of this sort, the devil is always in the details; luckily, there are many examples to consider and learn from. Although Thailand’s liberalization is laudable in principle, in practice many aspects have been botched, with various ministerial authorities issuing contradictory or nonsensical statements. For starters, the government set an unreasonably specific and low standard of the percentage of THC allowable in cannabis and cannabis products at 0.2% (for reference, commonly available cannabis flowers may contain 50-100 times that amount, or more). Such restrictions put sellers in a position where they could not realistically follow the rules set out by the government.

Additionally, blanket prohibitions on the consumption of cannabis in public places set an unreasonable and unenforceable prohibition of the consumption of a substance that was sold legally. Visitors to Thailand who wished to sample the newly legalized commodity could easily obtain it in any of the proliferating licensed shops but could not smoke it in their hotel rooms and so had little recourse but to consume it illegally in public, which could still be punished by hefty fines or up to three months in jail. In short, the poor framework for legalization created rules which seemed destined to be broken, both by sellers and consumers. Kratom use did not suffer from the same circumstances, the consumption of that substance in tea form being less noticeable to the olfactory senses of disapproving passersby.

It is worth noting that the issue has, of late, become highly politicized in Thailand’s partisan politics, which has caused a proliferation of sensationalized media coverage that is not likely to be substantive.

Despite many subsequent attempts at liberalization or legalization of ‘soft drug’ use, the most successful example may be that afforded by the Netherlands, which was the first country to officially adopt such a policy. One of the most important things about this was the intent—Dutch politicians recognized that a certain amount of drug use was inevitable in society, and sought to minimize the profits of organized crime syndicates by separating ‘soft drugs’, which have little public health risk, and ‘hard drugs’ which have much public health risk, as well as association with organized crime.

The system was designed to polarize the drug market into one sector which could be regulated, and another which must be prohibited, thereby avoiding giving even more profit sources to illicit operators, such as the aforementioned organized crime syndicates. In this system, a limited number of growers and sellers were licensed to legally operate, which resulted in the “coffee house” system, wherein people could go to designated shops to purchase and consume the intoxicants within. Simply put, consumers were provided for, and the government maintained control over who could profit from this industry.

This has several important implications. Dutch citizens and tourists could go to “coffee shops” to both purchase and consume intoxicants, unlike in the Thai system, where consumers can easily legally purchase but face difficulties legally consuming what they purchased, pushing use out onto the streets.

Of course, structured legalization is also a means for instituting common-sense controls on these substances, such as prohibitions against consumption by minors, pregnant women, and other groups who could suffer harm. Another key factor is that the Dutch system allows for easier regulation and collection of revenue by only allowing licensed and regulated outfits to operate; even more importantly, it explicitly set out to use profits generated from this industry to combat addiction to hard drugs through treatment programs, and also to bolster efforts against international drug trafficking.

While there is potential in this post-Covid world for nations to break with established protocols and attempt to institute newer, better, more responsive legal frameworks regarding drugs, the way forward is unclear. Whether Laos opts for the status quo, favoring an across-the-board crackdown in the style of the American War on Drugs, or instead walks a new path, generating new revenue sources through liberalization of the treatment of soft drugs which could be used to combat the proliferation of methamphetamine and heroin trafficking and use, one thing remains clear: harsh prohibitions are rarely effective in reducing use and oftentimes have unintended consequences.