In the lush jungle of Southeast Asia, a one-hunded foot Golden Buddha sits on the bank of the Mekong River, fifty feet away from the point where Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos meet. As I walked around the Buddha’s base last December, tourists posed for photos in front of the Mekong and bargained at one of the hundred tourist shops. The glistening Buddha, symbolic of peace and built for the Thai Queen’s birthday only a few decades ago, appears tranquil. Yet, it lies at the heart of the largest drug production zones in the world.
The region surrounding the intersection of the three countries is called the “Golden Triangle,” not because of the hot sun or the dense jungle, but because of the high concentration of poppy cultivation. The bright poppies produce something much darker: opium.“Triangle” comes from the country trifecta, “Golden” comes from opium’s nickname: “black gold.”
The drug crisis in the Golden Triangle is a story of supply and demand. In terms of supply, the production of opium has been fluctuating for decades. National governments and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime have been working on solutions to halt the flow and have experienced some success. Demand for opiates has proved a more difficult problem to solve. Curbing demand may be the most effective way to combat the drug cultivation, though as the crisis turns from one of opium to a methamphetamine called yaba (similar to speed), policymakers are scrambling to find new answers.
Fluctuating Opium Cultivation
Between 1996 and 2007, the three Southeast Asian governments, in partnership with the American Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), engaged in a large campaign to decrease opium trafficking by capturing the kingpin of the area. “They used to pass out mugs, pens, t-shirts, flyers, plastered with the drug lord’s picture all around the region, asking people to identify him,” my Thai tour guide, Anan recounted.
The crackdown efforts appeared to work. A 2007 New York Times article declared that the decrease in opium production was a “milestone in the war on drugs.” Eleven years later, my tour guide is still optimistic that drug production and trafficking is less than it once was. He believes that the illegal trade was curbed by strict Thai legislation. As he explained, if the government can’t track how you got your money, or your flashy new car, it will seize your property. If you drive through a checkpoint after being flagged down, you could be shot by the security guard.
My guide’s optimism may be misguided. Once curbed, the cultivation of poppies for heroin and other opioids is again on the rise due to increasing demand. The region is on alert. A 2010 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report estimated that between 2009 and 2010 in Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand, potential production of opium went up 75 percent, total value of opium production went up 82 percent, and opium poppy cultivation went up 22 percent.
Poppies, which are used for heroin and other opioids, require highly specified regions for growth. The hills of the Golden Triangle fit the requirements: they are high altitude, the perfect temperature, and far away from security forces.
“These remote mountainous areas previously could only be accessed by path, by footpath, for two or three days up in the mountains,” Brian Eyler, Director of Southeast Asian Studies at The Stimson Center, a nonpartisan think tank, told The Politic. To bring a product down to market is difficult, especially if the product is heavy.
“Without paved roads, it really made little sense, for cash crops like potatoes or bananas, or other low value compared to their mass type products to make their way down the mountains and down the pathways to market,” Eyler continued. The sap from poppies is the active ingredient in heroin, and its small mass makes it easy to transport down the mountain. This is the case “not just in the Golden Triangle, but in similar geographies all over the world.”
“There is no other business like growing poppy that will earn enough money,” agreed one Burmese man in an interview with the New York Times.
Eyler explained how improved infrastructure increases the likelihood of effective crop substitution. “Paved roads introduced over the last fifteen years will probably make the biggest difference into creating access for the diversion away from illicit drug production to regulated cash crops, but if there are no markets on which to sell these cash crops, illicit behavior will likely prevail,” he explained.
Connecting rural communities to a large infrastructure system cuts down the amount of time it takes to get crops to market. Still, a low land farm 30 miles away has an advantage over a farm in the hills.
Perhaps it’s the crop of substitution rather than the method that is ineffective. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime started a new pilot program in Myanmar in which farmers will switch from growing poppies to coffee.
“A farmer in our program will make a little more than $2,000 a year from making high quality coffee, this is not cheap coffee such as from Vietnam, this is very high quality coffee,” explained UNODC Myanmar Country Manager Troels Vester, in conversation with The Politic. To ensure that switching crops will be a sustainable option, the coffee has already been sold to a French company.
But many of the areas dedicated to poppy cultivation are run by warlords and inaccessible to the government. “Because of the remoteness, the production of these goods are a way for rebel groups, you can call them bandits, you can call them warlords, whatever, to maintain autonomy over a patch of land…and gain income to support their own militia needs or their own security needs,” Eyler described.
Yet Vester described how the UNODC is working with farmers even in warlord controlled areas- “Control of the area where our farmers we are working with is divided ie. government controlled areas, Pao administration areas, and finally under RCSS, the political arm of the Shan State Army.”
By testing the program on a cross section of Myanmar’s population, the UNODC hopes to make it a viable option for all farmers. The UNODC has signed agreements both with the Burmese government and the RCSS, which controls a region of Myanmar.
A side effect of efforts to halt opium production in the region is a major lack of opioids for medicinal purposes. Tom Fawthrop, a journalist who has reported on Southeast Asia since 1979, explained this serious shortage. In the United States, “it is seen as a normal right as a patient to get [opium painkillers], but because of the war on drugs, it is not seen in the same way in the third world.
“By pursuing this war on drugs, [the United States] never talks about [potential uses], they only talk about confiscating opium, cutting down on illegal areas of opium…Even the countries which are known to grow massive amounts of opium, because it’s illegal, it never enters into the public health chain and the public needs of those countries, it’s shameful,” he said.
Fawthrop proposes a system in Southeast Asia in which opium cultivation is legal, regulated by the government, and sold to create morphine and similar products in the region.
Vester is concerned about the logistics of legal opium cultivation. Though he acknowledges the possibility, and India’s success with legal cultivation, “It’s normally in a very confined government controlled area, far away from conflict zones and everything, so far not really relevant for Myanmar. In addition, the Government of Myanmar has shown no intention to legalize any kind of drugs.” he explained.
The ideal climate for cultivating and selling opium has translated well for the production and distribution of yaba.
Fawthrop and Vester agree that opium is not the region’s biggest problem. Rather, yaba, an easily produced and sold methamphetamine, poses the largest threat. “It’s extremely easy to traffic, much easier than other substances, they are small tablets which are passed around on a massive scale, there are people all over Southeast Asia that are distributing them, selling them, and suffering from them,” explained Fawthrop.
My guide was well acquainted with yaba. “Everyone knows where to go to get it, even your tuk-tuk (taxi) driver,” he explained as we walked around a small border town in Myanmar, just on the opposite side of the Mekong. As long as you take the pill (Speed) in a small, tucked away specific location, the Burmese police will leave you alone. One dollar, one dose of Speed, he proclaimed.
“Myanmar is actually the heart of the Mekong drug problem because of areas where production can take place without enforcement by the police,” explained Vester. The methamphetamine is produced in labs in the thick Burmese jungle, though the chemicals do not originate in the country. “Myanmar’s position geographically, between the two largest producers of chemicals in the world, meaning China and India,” ensures that chemicals easily enter Myanmar to zones where the government has no control.
For Southeast Asia, yaba may be more dangerous than opium. In 2014, a New York Times piece described widespread addiction to heroin in Myanmar’s jade mines. However, according to Fawthrop, “the majority of jade miners are not likely to be opium addicts, they are much more likely to be yaba addicts because opium is a relaxing drug. If you want people to carry out hard labor for you, digging for jade, you don’t want them on opium because they might fall asleep.” Yaba, in comparison, would in theory increase energy and productivity. Unlike opium, yaba “has no medicinal benefit whatsoever,” he explained.
Eyler notes that there is no empirical evidence that Golden Triangle drug production is tied to the American opioid epidemic, “The illicit drugs more squarely fit a local demand within China, Southwestern China, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.” However, there is no doubt that increasing demand around the world, whether it be in the United States, in Myanmar’s jade mines, or in China, allows Southeast Asian farmers to continually reap great rewards from cultivation.
The Demand Problem
“Regional and global demand for opioids is driving production in the Golden Triangle,” Eyler said.
“I think two main factors drive increases in demand for opioids and narcotics. Most importantly, increases in per capita income in China provide the means for Chinese people to experiment and consume opioids,” he explained.
Second, when the United States drove the Taliban out of power, former officials fled to the mountains, where they used opium cultivation to make money. “Geography, by way of elevation and remote mountainous areas, dictated that opium production was a way to earn income far away from the security forces that could curb or regulate that production,” Eyler explained.
“I think the demand side is probably the best way to control this because these zones will, for the medium term, remain out of touch with the sovereign forces that are trying to exert control over them,”says Eyler. China has figured out how to promote “legitimate economic growth better than any country in Southeast Asia,” and Laos has successfully curbed some production by “purposefully depopulating the hills,” though unclear whether removing people results in substantially decreased drug cultivation. The problem persists, once again proving that effective efforts at curbing demand are more necessary than those curbing supply.
Therefore, treating people addicted to opioids is more pressing than ending the trade altogether. There are real public health consequences of addiction, in Southeast Asia and in the United States. Using New York Times data, Vox concluded that in 2016, more people died in the United States from drug overdose than died in the entire Vietnam War.
Fawthrop believes that Southeast Asian countries’ current systems of combating addiction are inadequate and destructive to communities. “Unfortunately Thailand has been something of a pioneer with bootcamps where people who are suffering from yaba abuse,” he explained. When addiction gets out of hand, “the cops get hold of them and send them to special detention camps, which they might call drug rehabilitation but it’s largely submitting them to a military kind of routine which doesn’t actually treat the problem at all, it just removes people from society,” he continued.
The UNODC’s approach is to work with the Burmese government on new drug policy to establish a new system focused on rehabilitation as opposed to criminalization. “Myanmar has gone through and said that the existing policies on drugs do not work. The law dates to 1993, long before methamphetamine use and is outdated,” said Vester.
When I spoke with Mr. Vester in January, he noted the UNODC and the Government of Myanmar would be launching a new drug policy for the country on February 20, 2018.
“That drug policy is very much focused on shifting from a punitive approach to a more human-rights people centered approach,” announced Vester. Their program also focuses on helping addicts. Vester described, “For treatment of Yaba users it’s counseling and help in the local community, and in fact it’s cheaper than hospitalization, but the government here doesn’t know how to do it yet.”
The UNODC is trying “as much as possible to develop systems where drug users will be offered voluntary treatment rather than be sent to prison…” Lastly, in addition to new drug policy, they are working on an amendment to the 1993 drug law. He acknowledges that parliament still has to officially recognize the change, but the UNODC remains hopeful.
The “balloon effect,” coined by New York Times reporter Jonah Kessel, is a great way to explain the Golden Triangle’s opium politics. The air in a balloon never exits, but when one squeezes the air on one side, the air just moves to a different part of the balloon. “Knocking out a little bit of opium is just a drop in the ocean in terms of the supply,” says Fawthrop.
Given the human rights records of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos, it may seem improbable that the governments would turn to rehabilitation as a solution.However, according to Vester, who is an expert on Myanmar, the national government recognizes the necessity of a restorative and balanced approach to drug policy.
Whether in Southeast Asia, or the United States, drug demand has the potential to destabilize society. Following the Golden Triangle’s example, the only way to shrink the balloon is to help drug users with their addiction and curb demand.