Changes in the South-East Asian drug market

The South-East Asian drugs market has been undergoing a radical transformation in recent years with the traditional monopoly of opium use being replaced by a plethora of other substances. Nevertheless, South-East Asia has often been touted as one of the key examples of how a successful drug policy can be enacted. The regional and supra-national consensus in the 1990’s was to engage in a widespread poppy eradication process in order to reduce the amount of opium being produced from the Golden triangle region (covering regions of Thailand, Laos, Burma and Vietnam). The various drug control agencies called the eradication of poppy cultivation a “success story”. As the former Executive Detector of the UNODC claims, “the golden triangle is closing a dramatic period of opium reduction...a decade long process of drug control is clearly paying off”. Whereas the region once produced up to 1/3 rd of the world’s opium, the number was down to 5% after the eradication program began. 

The Transnational Institute, a progressive think-tank has sought to uncover the consequences of the opium eradication policy with one of the largest studies carried out in the region. The picture it provides is very different from the message provided by the UNODC. This report is the first of its kind in attempting to study the situation in South-East Asian drugs market as a whole, rather than just focusing on particular aspects, as previous studies have done. The report concludes with the idea that the region is suffering “withdrawal symptoms” from the opium eradication programme leaving little room for optimism. The article will examine the findings of this report.

The repressive policies enacted throughout South-East Asia, rather than reduce drug use and drug related harm, have in fact caused the opposite to happen. The decline in opium production has meant that there has been a regional shortage of heroin. Despite this reducing the number of people using heroin, the price of heroin has been forced upwards while the quality of heroin available is far worse. The report suggests that a result of this clampdown has been that users are now far more likely to engage in intravenous drug use (as a cost-effective measure). Drug users are also now using a much greater variety of other “replacement” pharmaceutical drugs where the health risks are less known. The rise in meta-amphetamine use, often intravenously although smoking and oral ingestion are also very common, has been one the most harmful results of the crackdown on opium use.  Clearly the assumption the reducing opium production would reduce drug-use has been proved wrong.

The report also extensively highlights that opium crop eradication is not in itself a complete policy; alternatives must be provided to farmers as an incentive to them, so that they can provide for themselves and their families without being reliant on opium. In many of the regions blighted by opium production, the options to produce other crops have far less economic benefits than growing opium. The report shows that where adequate alternatives to growing opium are not provided, as is the case in much of Burma and Laos, opium production has begun to increase again. Furthermore, international /regional aid or development assistance shouldn’t be made dependent on the crops eradication as they have been in the past. Continuous opium reduction without regard for the severe hardships of rural life in the Golden triangle will only exacerbate the problem faced by those in the region. The report therefore suggests a long-term solution with realistic alternatives for opium famers is the only feasible, sustainable approach.

Thailand for example has focussed on providing alternatives to opium cultivation since 1969 and has invested substantially in ensuring the hill tribes that live in the north of the country have a viable alternative to opium crops. 15 years after starting to provide assistance to tribes who were formerly reliant on opium, they began opium eradication and as such, there are an only around 1600 households still involved in poppy cultivation. Laos and Burma has failed to follow Thailand’s success in this respect. In Laos, there was nowhere near the investment provided to opium dependent groups in Thailand and despite some considerable investment, the report estimates some 400,00 people were left without alternative livelihoods after the countries poppy eradication programme concluded in 2006. The situation in Burma had a similar outcome to the situation in Laos after the crop eradication with 163,000 households still being dependent on opium production after the bans on growing opium where brought in. 

With so many people dependent on opium cultivation in these regions, it is essential that suitable alternatives are provided which are profitable enough to sustain their families and communities. As we are now seeing in Afghanistan, simply destroying the crops is not in itself a solution and simply pushes the away the people you are trying to engage. Substantial time and resources must be invested in creating alternative livelihoods for poppy farmers before the authorities introduce laws to eradicate opium.

Another key finding pointed out in the report is the chronic lack of adequate harm-reduction services in the four countries that make up the Golden triangle. With drug-control legislation being so excessively harsh in the region, harm-reduction services only cater for a tiny minority of the regions drug users and often operate quasi-legally or underground. As is the case in almost all regions who enact repressive drug policies with such inadequate focus on harm reduction services, it is the poorest and most vulnerable (the users and opium growers) who suffer the greatest hardships. Therefore the most worrying consequence of the increase in intravenous drug use is the rise in HIV transmission along with other infections associated with intravenous drug use. South-East Asia has one of the highest HIV rates in the world and the findings from this report suggest that it’s more than likely that this rate will continue to increase. It is worth bearing in mind that in some regions in Burma, 90% prevalence has already been reached.

The report also highlights the how the problems in providing adequate harm reduction services are undermined the archaic drug policies. Rapidly rising prison populations and disproportionally harsh sentencing, even for minor drug offences have alienated users from services they desperately need. Many countries in the region still actively use the death penalty for drugs offences, and the report cites the extra-judicial killing of an estimated 2300 drug users and small time dealers in 2003 in a three month period in Thailand under the the last government’s crackdown on drug use. Under this environment, reaching drug users is clearly made much more difficult. 

Regional and international aid is one of the key tools through which the international community can push for a more humane and less repressive drug policy. With the current levels of humanitarian aid provided to affected communities being so insufficient, support for alternative livelihoods other than growing opium, harm reduction and HIV prevention services must be provided internationally, especially when the national and regional support offered to those communities is so inadequate.

In conclusion, this region in which opium has long cultural history associated with opium cultivation and use, is now facing a far more complex and dynamic market of opiates, synthetic-amphetamine based drugs and pharmaceuticals. The diversification of the drugs market will surely only make it more difficult to manage drug use and provide for the neediest elements in the respective societies. The “one-size fits all” mantra has created a far more complex and difficult to manage problem for the relevant authorities in the region who will surely need international assistance to enact a more humane drug policy approach. However, the current consensus is one that is clearly not geared towards a humane approach. Donors and international organisations must have a much louder voice and have a much greater degree of involvement in the region if they’re going to have an impact in creating a more sustainable approach to drug use in the region. 


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