Thailand: Drugs, Tourists and Prison Time – SBS Dateline

Postproduction script










D6 @ 11:20:11:02


Thailand has long been an adult playground for western tourists


Upsot: Loud music / party vibe


But when it comes to drugs, that’s where the party stops




News upsot: “The three Australians were among several people detained”



Pablo PTC in Pat Pong Rd (night)

D6 R5C

Pablo @ D6 R5C (01:48:05):

For decades, this country has had some of the harshest drug laws in the world. Now, it's shifting its hard-line approach in a bid to empty jails and get tourists back into the country.



EXT DAY Army guys with guns

D2 C300 @ 00:36:32:07


But what does that mean for those on the frontline of Thailand’s drug war.


D2 C300


Pablo and Pham Muang looking over village


The villages that we can see down there are all drug storing villages.



Dee Dee walking up corridor

And how are people getting the their lives back after years in jail



Dee Dee

 It’s hard to find a job.

Very difficult to do anything.





Pablo walking along shuttered street

00:12:37:11 – D1 R5C







Pablo walking through Bangkok at night

01:51:47:02 – D6 R5C





I’m in Thailand, a country that has been almost entirely shutdown since the start of the pandemic.


Tonight the country officially reopens bars and entertainment to locals and tourists.


Upsot: Khao san road


A lot has changed in two years, but one aspect of Thailand’s reputation remains in tact.



D6 R5C


Night Voxxie with aussie guy







Voxxie with English girl

Pablo (01:54:52):

What do you think of their approach to drugs?


Speaker 7 (01:55:02):

Pretty. Yeah, you just don't do it.


Meg (01:58:00):

if it goes wrong with the police, it goes very badly wrong.





Night Bangkok Tourist streetscape

01:53:32:04 – D6 R5C


But that’s a reputation the country is trying to change.


A first for any Asian nation, in June this year Thailand legalised Cannabis.







“Don’t misuse it and don’t show off yourself smoking pot, you'll get nothing out of that.





Touted as a plan to complement the wellness industry, a raft of cannabis businesses have popped up overnight.



D6 @ 10:10:05

Pablo walking to the front of eth highland café


Nathan Feeney is a Bangkok based legal expert who seen countless foreigners banged up for drugs over the years.




Nathan and Pabs stopping in front of shop stopping in front of weed shop

Nathan: (10:32:34)
We come from a place where this is the plot point of a lot of movies, right? You come to Thailand, you get involved in drugs, you get arrested, life's over, right? And now we've got these cafes here, open out in the open in public, legally selling marijuana



Insitu chat out the front of cafe


Pablo (10:27:30):

So someone here walking out with a joint, what kind of jail sentence would that have gotten them 12 months ago?


Nathan (10:27:40):

So as a class five drug, you would've been at some light sentence. It could have been one to three months, perhaps. Potentially it could be up to 10 years for a marijuana charge, but that would have to be a pretty large amount.


Pablo (10:36:11):

Yeah. So what are the legalities around this new weed law?


Nathan (10:36:14):

If you're a tourist to Thailand, you can use marijuana, you can possess marijuana in a moderate amount. Okay. You cannot grow it. So don't try that.


Pablo (10:36:31):

What's a moderate amount?

Nathan (10:36:34):


I would say anything under a hundred grams. Yeah


Sequence Highland Café




Weed menu - 10:45:26:22


Keep this sequence inside the shop

Highland café is Thailand’s first legal weed cafe


Here, a gram of Moby Dick or Green Crack will set you back about 14 Australian dollars.


Catering primarily to locals at the moment, word is starting to spread about Thailand becoming Asia’s answer to Amsterdam.



Pablo PTC

D6 @ 11:05:19:07

It’s mind blowing to be here in this store, doing this would have got you locked up 12 months ago and now its being used to get tourists back into the country.



Sequence Japanese guy rolling joint













Voxies with Japanese guy







Before the pandemic 20% of Thailand’s GDP came from Tourism.


It is hoped this legislation will revive the crippled industry...


10:47:04:24 Japanese guy lighting joint and smoking


Japanese guy10:47:11:24 : Japanese guy coughing – “very good” “very high quality”


And for the most part, or at least for this Japanese tourist, it seems to be working.


10:49:12:14 Japanese guy: I just rent a condominium over there for 1 year, because legal in Thailand.




But for all the potential benefits this law brings... it comes at a time when the country is being flooded with more drugs than ever before.


Pha Muang



Pabs on Boat

Shot of Mekong River 00:50:26:16

Pha Munag boat 01:23:41:21








Dateline has been given rare access to a group on the frontline of Thailand’s drug war.



I’m on the Mekong river and we’re heading into the Golden triangle.






Pablo boat PTC





So that’s Thailand, That’s Lao and that’s Myanmar.



This border stretches over 300km and its up to these guys to police it


D2 C300






The Pha Muang (Pa Moo-ung) taskforce is a specialist military unit targeting drug smugglers.


Upsot: we might have seized a lot, but they could have produced, 10, 20 or 100 times more


Lieutenant Guy is a 20-year army veteran and a leader within the unit.



IV on boat

01:11:52 PABLO – What are you looking for on these patrols?


01:11:59 LIEUTENANT – To find, to observe transport boats coming in and out, what are they transporting?


01:13:41 LIEUTENANT – They may use our country for storing drugs because our country can be entered and exited through many routes. (01:13:50) We may be a storage country before they go to a third country.



Pablo getting off boat



Walking up gangway off camera

Many of the drugs moving through this region are destined for overseas markets like Australia.


To prevent this flow, Lieutenant Guy and his team are battling traffickers on the river, mountains and roadside border crossings.



Pablo is introduced to Pha Munag fella

(02:06:31) Hello, Lieutenant.


02:06:32 LEUT. Thanaporn – Hello.


02:06:33 LEUT. - How are you going?


02:06:34 PABLO – Hello. Pablo. So good to meet you.




02:15:22 OFFICER – We’re checking the vehicle to search for drugs like amphetamine or ice, which are smuggled into Thailand


Upsot: banging the car with hammers


Subreel 1 @ 00:01:44:00

So we will check corners, blind spots,

doors and compartments


02:31:39 OFFICER – Most of the drugs that we, the Pha Muang force, have seized, are from Myanmar, because the factory is in Myanmar, and is not too far from our border.



Search actuality

A former hot bed for heroin smuggling, the region is now flooded with synthetic drugs


The most problematic one for Thailand is a meth pill called Yaba



Footage from recent seizure



In the first 7 months of this year, Pha Muang have seized 120 million yaba pills, almost double the amount from last year….






Car search actuality


02:29:24 PABLO – Are there any other tell-tale signs in someone’s character that makes him suspicious?


02:29:31 OFFICER They won’t make eye contact with the person they’re talking to. They’re agitated. Their eyes dart. They will be sweating.




Upsot: banging the car with hammers


Seizures at this checkpoint are not uncommon, but the real battle against traffickers happens in a much more remote location.


And Lieutenant Guy has offered to take us there.




Travelling through mountains





Pablo and Guy in car



Cut these grabs down when subs come back

00:45:22 LIEUTENANT – We’re heading to is Doi Chang Mub Military Outpost. (00:45:26) Doi Chang Mub  is the border between Thailand and Myanmar, which runs along a  high mountain range. (00:45:35)



Troops walking along

D2@ 00:07:45:22



We are now walking on the doorstep of some of the world’s biggest meth producers.


70% of Australia’s meth is thought to come out of this region.



Troops with guns and binoculars










00:12:55 PABLO – How dangerous is this work?


00:13:02 LIEUTENANT – It’s life-threatening kind of dangerous because, assuming our group are hiding, and the enemy force is larger in numbers. (00:13:10)


00:23:33 LIEUTENANT – Actually, we don’t recommend coming here at night because if the enemies are trafficking drugs and see us, they might shoot us first. (00:23:41)




Just weeks before we filmed here


Pha Muang came into contact with traffickers, killing 9 people and seizing 1.5 million yaba pills





This dangerous and thankless job, is even more infuriating, knowing that the enemy is hiding in plain sight.



Guy pointing to drug storage houses in the valley


00:25:22 PABLO – So, this village over there. What happened over there? (00:25:30) So, this village over there? What, what happened over there?


00:25:35 LIEUTENANT – It's the village used for storing drugs. The drugs are manufactured in the Myanmar zone. Then they shift them around villages down there, storing them in this area.

It's the main village for storage.

We don’t know when they'll traffic. Our job is to watch and arrest them only when they cross to our side.


Pablo talking Guy on hilltop

00:33:42 LIEUTENANT :

We have to try every avenue

to prevent drugs from the other side from reaching our side. That’s all we can do, really.









00:28:42 PABLO – So, do you think what you’re doing here is having an impact on what’s coming across the border?


00:29:05 LIEUTENANT – It makes their job harder because they want to sell drugs in order to buy weapons to protest against the Myanmar’s military junta, (00:29:13)



Shots of Myanmar / villages etc



The 2021 Coup in neighbouring Myanmar has not only led to political instability...


it’s also resulted in Meth and Yaba being produced at extreme levels to fund the fight against Myanmar's military.






EXT shed where Toon is setting up


This flood of drugs means it’s cheaper and more available than ever before.


And it’s having a devastating impact in some of the most vulnerable parts in the country.



Toon setting up forum








08:23:04 TOON – In the last 12 months or a year, the drug problem has gotten worse.


08:20:14 TOON –We work in drug prevention in every region of Thailand.  However, here in Upper northern Thailand, we found that the drug problem should be of concern.



Toon is the head of the Northern Substance Abuse Center.





07:39:37 Toon- The drug we refer to as the problem. And which has community leaders concerned is YA BA, or Methamphetamine (07:39:46) It is widely distributed, making it simpler for young people to obtain



Mae vivorn

Getting thing ready

Community leader Mae Vivorn has been watching this epidemic destroy her village.


Today she’s called a meeting with local leaders to try and find a solution.



Mae vivorn talking to group





07:43:36]  Mae Vivorn: As the local community we are trying to solve this problem for a long time. But we haven’t been able to solve it .



Forum actuality




028 00:03:32:12 00:03:36:00


Maybe it’s unsolvable,

that’s what we had thought.


In this village Yaba costs around 2 Australian dollars.


TOON: I ask you community leaders,

are you tired of this problem?


Aren’t you sick of it?





Toon aims to empower locals like Mae Vivorn to tackle drug problems at a grassroots level. 


But he says Thailand’s drug policy continues to focus resources elsewhere.




08:41:31) If we look at the government policy on drug issues every year, it is all about the reword for officers, the reward for police, and the reward for the army, they only focus only on suppression, but what about the community or local? The government has ignored these people.



Pabs walking into Community


Toon and Mae Vivorn have invited us back to meet a group of volunteers



Pablo meets Toon



06:39:44 Pablo – Toon, hello.

06:39:46 Toon – Sawasdee Khrab

-- -

06:40:48 Pablo- What are we up to today?



06:39:50 Toon – Umm Today, we will visit three families’ homes, (06:39:57) To see people who have been affected by drugs. (06:40:00



Sequence of Toon and co. packing food and car



They have offered to show us their village… and the effects of abundant cheap drugs



Sequence of Toon and Co delivering food package

06:41:48:07 - 06:50:57:22


Subreel 4

08:26:15 MAE VIVORN The area has a vulnerable group (Youth) and previous users who were caught and then returned to use it when they were released from prison. The main groups that use the drug are labour and youth, both of which are at risk at the moment. (08:26:42)



Shots of local area







Toon and team

06:55:45:09 Walking past camera


She estimates that 80% of the households in this village have someone using yaba or meth.




With family often becoming the collateral damage.


06:56:15:20 – walking into house sitting down




06:58:28 Mae Vivorn – Her son was also a drug addict as well. But now he quitted and he’s a completely different person.


06:58:53 Toon – What type of drug did they use?


06:58:54 Grandmother – YABA. (08:58:58) Since he was 14 years old, then he went crazy. So, I brough him to the hospital.


06:59:11 Grandmother –He must take the pills everyday and inject once a month because he had brain damage.



Shot of Mae Bua Keaw


Shot of Premika

Not only does this mother look after a son with a drug induced brain injury…


She’s now the sole carer for her granddaughter, Premika.



Master IV with Mae Bua Keaw

07:04:09 PABLO –How did you end up living with your granddaughter?


07:04:51 Mae Bua Keaw – Because her mother and her father were both drug addicts, then they separated when Premika was young and brought her to me.


07:06:10 Mae Bua Kaew – Sometimes I worry that my granddaughter would also end up like that because today’s youth tend to follow their friends.



Actuality of team talking to granny and kid

[06:57:54] Maevivorn: Are you a good student?


child: yes


Maevivorn: Thats great, no need to worry about your parents. just stay with you grandma


Master IV with Premika

07:09:29 PABLO – What impact that drugs have on your life?


07:09:40 Premika- I don’t like it. It is not a good thing. (07:09:59) It changed my life.


07:12:01 Premika I want to have my parents drop me off like others.





Nearly all the families in this village have been impacted by YABA....




...and many addicts from this region have found themselves jailed for minor offence.






Thailand previously considered anything over 0.375grams of hard drugs...trafficking.


A charge that attracted a minimum four-year sentence.


As a result 80% of the inmates here are jailed on drug charges.


This hard-line approach, coupled with the influx of cheap drugs, has led to a prison system running at triple its official capacity.






EXT Chaing Mai

City upsot



Dee Dee walking in park...

Dee Dee lives in Chiang Mai.


She’s one of the thousands caught up under this unforgiving approach.



Dee Dee sitting in park


05:44:33 DEE DEE – I got arrested for dealing drugs, they were Yaba, about 37 pills. I was sentenced to two years and nine months.




Her time in prison still haunts...



























05:45:22 DEE DEE – On the first day that I got in, I couldn’t eat or sleep. I cried all the time thinking who was going to take care of my kids. It was every crowded, a lot of people. (05:45:46) It was very difficult in there.


05:49:30 DEE DEE –. When women have to live with other women, there are violent fights for sure. (05:49:56)


Perhaps the biggest price... Losing her two boys.


06:23:59 PABLO – How hard was it in prison being separated from them?

06:24:10 DEE DEE – Oh, it was very difficult to accept at first. I was afraid that they would lack warmth and affection. I wanted to cuddle them, to kiss them but I couldn't. It was hard. (06:24:27) It made me feel distressed.




With prisons at breaking point, the Thai government recently passed a law that cut sentences for low level offenders like Dee Dee.



Nathan Feeney



Master IV with Nathan



Nathan (09:54:13):

Minor offenders, or people that just made a mistake, they had five tablets of ecstasy and they went to a party, or they were maybe farm workers or truck drivers that had a handful of Yaba to help them get through the day. Instead of spending the next four years in a prison, they're able to look at this and say, "Okay, I can get on with my life. I'm not a drug trafficker."



Master IV with Nathan

Legal expert Nathan Feeney says this law is already having an effect.



Master IV with Nathan

Nathan (10:06:41):

Thousands of prisoners are eligible to be released under these new laws. So we have seen a big shift in the Thai government's thinking from just put everyone in prison who's involved in drugs, which I think by now, most of us know doesn't work, to, okay, let's imprison the most serious offenders. Those who are harming society. But those that have made a mistake, they'll say, okay, let's give them a second chance.




Upsot: Dee Dee  doing something


Dee Dee knows too well that second chances are hard to come by...


But she’s determined to turn things around. 




Thailand is softening its hard line approach to drugs in a bid to lower prison populations and lure tourists back.


But for inmates jailed under the former regime, the real challenge lies outside the prison walls.








Dee Dee walking up dark corridor and into home





After serving two years and three months...


Dee Dee found herself in limbo after release.



Master IV

05:55:35 DEE DEE

I lost opportunities.Many opportunities.

Whatever mistakes I had made… like opportunities to move forward in life.

It’s very difficult. It’s hard to find a job.

Very difficult to do anything.



Dee Dee putting on makeup in mirror



But there is one women who’s dedication to rehabilitation, has thrown a lifeline to thousands of former inmates like Dee Dee.




Walking into massage shop

05.35.40 DD – Hello mum. This is Pablo.

05.35.43 Naowarat – Hello


05.35.44 Pablo – Hello. Lovely to meet you


05.36.00 DD – The reason I call her mum is because mum has supported me in every way: food, well-being, accommodation, when I first got out.


05.37.02 DD – If I didn’t have mum to help me I would end up in the same place: same places, same situations, everything all the same, and maybe being back inside.



Pablo and Narowarat walking in massage joint


Narowarat or mum, is the former director of the Chaing Mai women’s prison.


She started this massage shop after watching women struggle to re-enter society after jailtime.



Narowarat standing in hallway talking Pablo and staff

04:31:23) No one wants to accept them for work. So this makes them revert to committing crimes again. They’ve got nowhere to go, they don’t know where to go. (04:31:32) They’ve got no home to go to. Sometimes they go back and get sentenced again.



GV of women giving massages

What started with one massage parlour, has turned into 8.


Each shop offering former inmates training, employment and a chance to start fresh.



Women giving massages

04:41:36 [NAOWARAT] I kept thinking that if they had an occupation that was sustainable enough for them to make a living, they wouldn’t commit crimes. (04:41:52)


Insitu IV upstairs at massage joint


04:45:20 Pablo: So all your workers have spent time in prison at some point?


04:45:28 [NAOWARAT] – Yes, yes. … Yes.


04:45:57 [NAOWARAT]  Most of the staff were inmates in prison. On drugs charges, 90% of them.




With women making up 14% of Thailand’s total prison population, Its the world's highest ratio of female inmates.




I've sat down and chatted with them and they say

"Mum, my child has nothing to eat. "Whatever is close at hand,

I grab that first."

They see people selling drugs,

and see that they can sell them,


They don't know how long

they will be sentenced for. They just think "As long as I can feed my kids."


Master IV

 Pablo : Why do you feel so compelled to take these women in?




I've been with them for years.

There is a connection there.

Another thing...

What I've been doing makes me happy. It gives me something to do. I don't want to be an old person lying around the house.




And nothing makes a mother prouder than watching her children succeed.


Insitu chat with former inmates in BG


04:51:02 [NAOWARAT] When I find out that they get a refrigerator, they tell me. When they get a TV, they tell me. When they get a house, they tell me. (04:51:13) I’m happy for them.



Narowart walks off.

(04:56:49) [NAOWARAT] - Wearing the mask makes me tired…(04:56:54) Or maybe I’m just old…haha









As much as Narowarat loves giving back... she knows she can’t do this forever.


With such limited support for inmates and addicts… some question Thailand’s approach to their growing drug problem.





09:05:30 – Question – Do they think they are winning this war?

TOON: We will never win the drug war because the drug problems that exist in this world, in Thailand's community, are so much more complicated than any human in any position can comprehend.


TOON drug problems in Thailand are related to inequality, poverty and opportunity, which is why the problem persists. The government intends to suppress rather than prevent the problem. So, in my opinion, the policy should be questioned because it has failed.


D2 @ 01:39:55:08 + 01:42:09:02 + 01:41:36:08 +01:42:37:23

But as a legal expert who’s witnessed countless drug cases in Thailand,


 Nathan Feeney is optimistic about the positive change this new law can bring


Tourists and weed

Natsot Tourists smoking: 11:06:54:12



Iv outside weed shop

Nathan (10:29:26):

Not only will this benefit the tourists that come here from getting arrested and spending a major time in prison. It's also great for Thai people, who could potentially be looking at prison sentences here.


Nathan: (10:31:37)
I'm excited to see what happens. I think it's a great experiment and I hope the laws remain as they are now, these new laws. And I think it's going to be a great opportunity for other nations including Australia to see okay, if Thailand can make this work, why can't we and why don't we? And these are important questions for the Australian government to ask themselves.






Although the hardline stance has softened... it hasn’t yet disappeared


Pabs and Nathan walking off


Nathan (10:42:46):

Yeah. My advice right now for Australians visiting Thailand would be take it easy. Don't fill your suitcase full of weed. That's still not okay. But if you want to have a smoke, just be responsible


Pablo (10:42:57):

Advice from the expert.


Nathan: That's right.







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