For more than two generations, the apocryphal tourist greeting in Thailand and neighbouring countries has been "Welcome, visitors. If you have drugs, we will kill you." Websites, travel agents, airport billboards and even immigration cards have carried versions of this warning. The bottom line: Possession of illegal drugs could be punished by execution. But slowly evolving policies appear finally to be eliminating the death penalty for drug trafficking.
The welcome change is far from even across Asia. Nor is there an actual movement that is pushing the change. China and Vietnam lag far behind in the slowly changing attitude towards punishment in drug cases. At the other end of the justice scale, Cambodia and the Philippines have abolished all capital punishment in the past six years. But while many countries retain the death penalty, they are using it less against drug offenders.
A low-profile group with Thailand ties, called the International Harm Reduction Association, has documented the changes in use of the death penalty. Patrick Gallahue, an author of the study and the group's spokesman, believes the evolution of drug trafficking penalties has been "tipping the scales for abolition" of the ultimate penalty.
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