ohCTOBRE WAS a stellar month for the Lao police. On the 27th, an officer from Bokeo, a northern province, waved to a truck full of cases of Lao Brewery beer. They contained 55.6 million methamphetamine tablets and over 1.5 tonnes of crystal meth, a more potent version of the drug. It was the largest drug seizure ever in Asia, according to the UN. The previous week, police seized 16 million amphetamine tablets during two operations in the same area.
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Law enforcement agencies in Southeast Asia have gotten used to breaking records. Almost every year between 2011 and 2020, authorities seized more methamphetamine, as the drug is commonly known, than the year before. Between 2015 and 2019, the only other region to confiscate as many goods as East and South-East Asia (including the UN groups) was North America, although the overall volume of drugs passing through Asia is probably greater, as authorities there are more corrupt and less well-equipped to intercept traffickers, says Jeremy Douglas of the Office of United Nations on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), a UN agency. And the recorded foreclosures are probably just the tip of the iceberg.
Most of these traits take place in Indochina. Even though it is home to only 10% of the population of East and Southeast Asia, it accounts for almost three quarters of the methamphetamine detected in the region. The methamphetamine labs that fuel Asia’s habit are in Shan State, a lawless area in eastern Myanmar. Even before Myanmar’s military coup in February, it was a major center of methamphetamine production. But the coup has distracted the attention of already negligent authorities, making the area even more attractive to drug cartels. In neighboring countries, this year’s seizures are once again breaking records: six times more methamphetamine were seized in Laos in 2021 than in 2020. “It’s been a mess since February, especially in recent months”, explains M Douglas. “It’s pretty clear that the collapse of governance and security in drug-producing areas after the coup had had an impact.
Cartels sell their products as far as Japan and Australia, where richer consumers can afford to pay more. But they are also increasingly targeting customers closer to home, where the population eclipses that of the wealthier countries in Asia. The unions seem to have adapted their business model accordingly. Over the past decade, the price of methamphetamine has fallen across the region. This suggests that while the cartels once tried to keep prices at a certain point, their strategy now is to flood the area and increase sales by increasing levels of drug use.
The strategy of increasing demand by increasing supply seems to be working. The data is sketchy – few will admit to being a drug addict or addict – but suggest that there is a huge appetite for methamphetamine. In 2019, according to UNODC figures, 0.61% of East and Southeast Asians aged 15 to 64 used amphetamine-type substances, including methamphetamine, at least once a year, compared to a global average of 0, 54%.
That translates to 10 million people, making it the largest methamphetamine market in the world. Recent household surveys show that around 1 million people in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand have tried methamphetamine at least once in the past year. Between 2016 and 2019, the number of people who used methamphetamine at least once a year increased eightfold in Vietnam and tenfold in Thailand. In 2019, the UN estimated the regional market to be worth $ 60 billion.
Methamphetamine attracts users for several reasons. It is often the easiest drug to obtain – there is very little cocaine in the area – and it is plentiful. Suchart (not her real name), a Thai user, says that methamphetamine is even easier to obtain in Bangkok today than it was twenty years ago, and at the time “people there gave ”. Many prefer it to heroin, which was the drug of concern in Southeast Asia until it was supplanted by methamphetamine a decade ago. The numbing effects of heroin “wash you out,” Suchart says. “Methamphetamine makes me more active, gives me more strength to do things.”
It appeals to people who work long hours, like Somchai (a pseudonym), who was a truck driver when he started popping. yaba, tablets containing four parts of caffeine to one part of methamphetamine. The use of methamphetamine was once reserved for the working class, but since crystal methamphetamine, the quality of which is higher than yaba, started flooding the market about seven years ago, it drew a well-to-do crowd. Stronger and purer than yaba, crystal is often used by those who want more energy to party.
Dealers can count on feedback from their customers. About one in ten methamphetamine users will become addicted. This number rises to one in five for regular crystal meth users. It is difficult to get a clear idea of the number of drug addicts in Southeast Asia, as the only indicators of drug addiction in the region are unreliable. Admissions to drug treatment are inflated by involuntary dismissals while the number of drug arrests may be fueled by arrest quotas.
Despite this, the indicators in most countries tend to increase. In the five years leading up to 2020, the number of known methamphetamine users in Vietnam has increased eightfold. In Thailand, treatment admissions doubled in the three years leading up to 2018. In Malaysia, the number of crystal-meth users who came into contact with authorities increased six-fold between 2016 and 2019.
This weighs on public health. Methamphetamine induces feelings of euphoria, often prompting users to engage in risky behaviors, such as having unprotected sex at chemsex parties. The urge to step up the rush leads some users to inject themselves with methamphetamine, which increases the risk of transmitting diseases like HIV.
Once the high wears off, some suffer from anxiety and paranoia. More than a third of recreational users will develop methamphetamine-induced psychosis, which is similar to schizophrenia. A hospital in Thailand found that six years after the completion in 2010 of a study of patients diagnosed with methamphetamine-induced psychosis, 8.2% had died, a proportion ten times the overall death rate of the Thailand. The top three causes of death were accidents, suicide and AIDS. (Methamphetamine users tend to have higher rates of sexually transmitted diseases.) Apinun Aramrattana, professor of medicine at Chiang Mai University in Thailand, says the country’s “methamphetamine epidemic” is fueling increasing rates. of mental illness. Hospitals, he said, have struggled to accommodate the number of patients with methamphetamine-induced psychosis.
The response from Southeast Asian governments has not helped. Too often, the authorities sanction users by locking them up or throwing them into “compulsory cures” centers, where the only care provided is abstinence and work. This punitive response “just didn’t work,” says Ann Fordham of the International Drug Policy Consortium, a London-based advocacy group, pointing to the growing number of users.
The UN argues that drug addicts should be treated as patients rather than herded together as criminals. Many governments are starting to accept this idea. But until they divert funding for drug treatment from law enforcement to health agencies, the number of addicts will continue to rise, much to the satisfaction of the cartels that provide them. ■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “On a high”