Thai narcotics officials are scrambling to test hundreds of sacks of powder after prematurely hailing the seizure as the country’s biggest ever bust but which initial checks revealed to contain legal chemicals, including for removing stains from clothing.
The Southeast Asian country is a known hub for drug traffickers and big seizures in crystal meth and heroin often make headlines. Anti-narcotics teams appeared to notch a major victory in the fight to contain the ever-morphing trade when they announced two weeks ago that nearly 500 sacks containing ketamine weighing 11.5 tons and worth nearly $1 billion were discovered in a warehouse.
Authorities said they believe the operation, made possible by a tip from Taiwanese authorities, uncovered shipments destined for markets in Europe, Japan or South Korea. But unfortunately initial tests conducted on 66 of the hundreds of white sacks revealed trisodium phosphate, a chemical used as a food additive and stain remover.
On Tuesday, Justice Minister Somsak Thepsutin, who oversees drug enforcement in the country, was forced to walk back the claim earlier this month, blaming a “technical error” in field testing.
“I have to admit that it was too soon to hold a press conference to announce findings from the November 12 raid [without waiting for lab test results first],” he told reporters according to the Bangkok Post. "No matter, we have admitted the mistake.” The confusion extended to coverage of his remarks. Elsewhere, he was quoted saying it wasn’t a mistake, but “new knowledge.”
The error happened when field tests of the product conducted that day turned purple, a tell-tale sign of ketamine but also of trisodium phosphate when using the same chemical agents to check. But the snafu was apparently only discovered later, long after reporters and TV crews were called to the warehouse about two hours from Bangkok to film the impressive haul stacked up in rows. The story also pinged around the internet in numerous articles.
The justice minister did not clarify whether large amounts of ketamine were found mixed in, but did suggest in his briefing that it could be possible. “On the day I held the press conference, I did not say it was 100 percent ketamine,” Somsak was quoted as saying. He also hinted that it might take some time to get to the bottom of the mystery, saying it “may not be corrected in the short term.”
Thai authorities did not return requests for additional comment from VICE World News.
Ketamine, a drug used to treat depression, as an anesthetic in medicine, and as a recreational party pill, is not traditionally popular in Thailand. But a May 2020 report by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said ketamine seizures have surged in East and Southeast Asia since 2015.