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Broken Urine Testing Policies in Thailand Harming Thousands

The fence of a prison in Thailand

Since the 1970s, Thailand has grappled with how to address drug trafficking within its borders, as the country evolved into a global hub of opium trade. Methamphetamines are one of the most widely used drugs there today, increasing dramatically since the late 1990s. As a result, the nation passed harsh drug laws that include the death penalty for acts involving drugs.

Police powers have increased as part of an escalation of control over people who use drugs; rewards are routinely granted to officers with the highest number of drug arrests. This is frequently done through urine drug testing, which is an authorised practice under the Thai Narcotics Code of 2021. This legislation allows police to set up general checkpoints for urine testing, claiming it prevents crimes and keeps the roads safe. Thailand’s eradication approach to drugs further targets the youth, with mass drug testing happening in schools.

Speaking to TalkingDrugs, REFORM Thailand, a coalition of three civil society organisations, including Institute of HIV Research and Innovation, the Foundation for Action, Inclusion and Rights (FAIR) and the Health Opportunity Network, outlined how the process of urine drug testing works in Thailand. Crucially, the kits only provide preliminary results; the results need to be confirmed in a hospital equipped with a more complex testing facility, as dictated by the Department of Medical Sciences. Without a confirmed urine test result, legal proceedings against the person tested may be dismissed.


Human rights and authority abuses

However, REFORM pointed out that the reality on the ground often diverges from these procedural safeguards. Law enforcement officers will frequently arrest people for any positive result, even before any confirmatory tests happen.

Speaking to TalkingDrugs, Francis Joseph, the Coordinator of the Network of Asian People who Use Drugs (NAPUD), confirmed:

“If people are not able to pay, they are sent into judicial custody and then to the court. Then the judge decides whether they will be sent to a treatment centre… or into prison. And let me include that Thailand prisons are already overcrowded”.

If people are not able to bribe their way out of an arrest, they may face imprisonment or compulsory treatment, contributing to a systemic issue of prison overcrowding. A 2017 study highlighted that Thai prisons already operate at 145% capacity.

Not only is the practice of compulsory urine drug testing clearly so ineffective that it requires confirmatory results in a hospital, it is also linked to various human rights abuses. Street-side urine tests by the police are not only conducted in unsafe environments, they subject individuals to vulnerable situations, where they may be harassed, abused, or worse if they do not comply.

Moreover, the semi-compulsory nature of urine testing further infringes on the right to travel, as non-compliance with an officer’s request could lead to imprisonment for up to 6 months and fines reaching 10,000 baht.


Legal Foundations and the call for reforms

The legal foundations of compulsory urine testing, rooted in the Thai Narcotics Code 2021 and the Land Traffic Act 1979, raise fundamental questions about the balance between individual rights and state authority. These laws grant officials the power to demand urine testing based on suspicion, but their broad scope also create opportunities for corruption and abuse of power.

This practice lays the groundwork for potential abuses of authority, with law enforcement officers wielding influence before confirmatory tests are conducted in hospitals. As the REFORM team confirmed:

“We often find law enforcement officers trying to say that test results at checkpoints are accurate and recommended that we go to rehabilitation treatment or pay money to be able to return home. If we don’t choose, we may be at risk of being violently treated.”

Suspicious screening results often become bargaining chips, and people must negotiate or pay bribes to ensure their release. Simultaneously, urine testing coerces people to comply with the normalisation of biological surveillance and erosion of bodily autonomy. It is also an issue if no access to justice, as those subjected to urine tests are often not fully informed of rights, procedures, and potential consequences, as Joseph told TalkingDrugs.

The intersection of routine testing procedures with legal repercussions thus paints a vivid picture of a system that raises serious questions about this drug policy system being able to uphold individual rights and procedural fairness, while stopping abuses of authority.


Barrier for support

Moreover, this practice impacts people’s willingness to access health or harm reduction services. As pointed out by REFORM team:

“Urine testing is a process that begins with compulsion. So, no matter what your goal is, it is certain that it will not be effective. Many people are afraid to go to health services or receive harm reduction services because they are worried that they may encounter checkpoints or have their urine tested when travelling.”

To end this practice, REFORM Thailand suggests some amendments to the Narcotics Code to shift the responsibility of drug testing from the Ministry of Justice to the Ministry of Public Health. This would align drug testing with treatment objectives, rather than as a tool for punishment. Moreover, they advance the idea that the Thai Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) should enact a Royal Decree to reform specific parts of the Narcotics Code to facilitate the implementation of harm reduction initiatives. This could protect people who use drugs from abuses of power by creating a channel for people to raise any abuses to authorities.

REFORM underscored how the recently passed “Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance of Persons Act 2022”, which criminalises cruel or degrading treatments; this law could be used as a tool to prevent human rights violations, including indiscriminate practices like urine testing, as well as providing victims safe ways to report mistreatments of justice.

Drug user advocates are fighting to ensure that Thai policies inform people who use drugs of their rights, while providing them with recourses to challenge any abuses of power they experience. While reforms of existing drug laws help establish systems to report on abusive practices, deeper systemic change is needed to address the over-incarceration of people who use drugs.


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