Example 2: Thai drug users form a network to advocate for harm reduction and human rights 

Project Type: Advocacy

The Organization

The Thai Drug Users’ Network (TDN) formed in Bangkok, Thailand in December 2002. The organization focuses on raising awareness of health, human rights and harm reduction principles—especially as those concepts relate to experiences of arbitrary arrest, torture, discrimination in judicial and healthcare settings, and lack of access to health care information. Former injection drug users founded TDN and the organization now includes over 100 former or current drug users.

The Problem

Most new cases of HIV in Thailand occur as a result of injection drug use. At the time of TDN’s forming, needle exchange programs were illegal, drug users encountered difficulty obtaining antiretroviral drugs, opiate substitution therapy was not readily available, and stiff criminal penalties existed for illicit drug use.

In February 2003, the Thai Government initiated a campaign to make Thailand “drug free.” The campaign resulted in widespread human rights abuses against IDUs, including the extrajudicial killings of over 2,200 alleged drug dealers and the incarceration of approximately 50,000 suspected drug users.

Actions Taken

In May 2002, Paisan Suwannawong and Karyn Kaplan conducted a study on the human rights situation of IDUs in Thailand. In December 2002, Suwannawong and Kaplan released their findings to the study participants in a meeting held in Bangkok. This prompted the study participants to form TDN.

TDN was designed to address the human rights issues raised by Suwannawong and Kaplan’s report. The project benefited from technical and financial support from international organizations, but was led by the Thai IDUs who commanded knowledge of the problem, a passion to effectuate a solution, credibility of their followers and respect from activists and governments around the word.

Results and Lessons Learned 

TDN gained a seat on Thailand’s official harm reduction task force and met with members of the Ministry of Public Health and the Office of Narcotics Control

TDN and three partners received a US $1.3 million grant from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria (despite the lack of a Country Coordinating Mechanism) to implement peer-driven HIV prevention and harm reduction programs across Thailand.

TDN met with members of the Ministry of Public Health and the Office of Narcotics control.
In July 2004, Prime Minister Shinawatra (who previously declared Thailand’s drug-free campaign) reversed course and publicly committed to the harm reduction principle, eschewing punitive measures.

The project and Global Fund grant dramatically raised the profile of IDUs in Thailand and the region, leading to their unprecedented involvement in national and multilateral policymaking, funding, and program development.